By Starlett Quarles
It’s not often you hear about a politician openly smoking weed in public. But last month, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-South Los Angeles, did just that. In a dramatic show of support for his belief in the legalized use of medical marijuana, Jones-Sawyer actually “puff puff passed” a vape pen to singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge during a recent fundraiser in West Hollywood.
So I recently spoke with Jones-Sawyer about his work on legalizing the cannabis industry in California, and his strong desire to dispel the myths and educate black people on the numerous business opportunities that will exist within an industry that was once used to incarcerate so many men and boys of color.
SQ: Last month you made history by being the first state-elected official to smoke cannabis in public. Why? What message were you trying to send?
RJS: I’ve worked hard on legalizing medical marijuana [to make] sure that people with cancer, seniors, children with childhood diseases and veterans with post traumatic stress disorder had access to it instead of a lot of pharmaceuticals; which have a lot of bad side effects.
So I, along with four other [legislators], got involved and wrote the laws for medical marijuana [in California]; which led to Prop. 64 [and eventually] us writing the laws for medical and adult use of cannabis. And I was thinking, “I’ve been involved in this. We were able to get 64 people to vote for it on the floor of the Assembly, and 64 percent of the Senate.” And I had all these colleagues saying, “Yes, this was the right thing to do. It’s now legal.” January 1 comes and I know a lot of people, especially elected officials, who participate [and believe in] legalized cannabis use, whether it’s for medicinal or adult use; but none of them would admit to it.
I thought it was hypocritical for everyone to do it, but wouldn’t tell anybody else they were doing it. So I thought as a public official who advocated for this, I will smoke in public with Melissa Etheridge, who volunteered to show me how to do it with a vape pipe.
SQ: What inspired you initially to support the legal use of medical marijuana?
RJS: My girlfriend’s father had cancer … the kind of throat cancer; that [made him] have trouble eating and keeping his food down. So he started using it and it made his life much more enjoyable. And if you know anybody from New Orleans, they like to eat.
People from New Orleans like to fry butter and they’ll eat it. They just love to eat. And that was taken away from him with the kind of cancer that he had. [The cannabis] allowed him to be able to enjoy some of the foods and delicacies from there.
So when I ran in 2012, no one could take him to a cannabis store, and so he asked me to take him. I was a little apprehensive, and I said, “I’m not sure.” He said, “Come on it’s fine. It’s legal, it’s medical [and] it’s approved by the city.”
So I took him to a store expecting to see a whole bunch of brothas in dreadlocks and beads … and I walked in and it looked like a pharmacy. That was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my life. I thought I was in another place. I thought we went to the wrong place.
Not only was it clean, but the individuals there were knowledgeable. They were friendly. They knew him. They knew what his disease and modality was, and they helped him. And I literally was standing in the store just staring at how professional the medical cannabis industry had become.
SQ: What are some of the misconceptions about the Cannabis Industry; especially amongst black people?
RJS: That’s part of the problem; [which is] why I’m trying to get African Americans into the business side of cannabis. Because what will happen over the next five years is that there will be a lot of people who don’t look like us making a lot of money on this, and someone’s going to look back [and say]: “Well how come we didn’t get involved?” And it’s because we were obviously afraid. We’ve been criminalized by cannabis for so long, and jailed for so long, and filled the prisons with it; that we want to stay away from it quite naturally.
There’s [also] a perception that if you smoke cannabis it will automatically lead you to heroine, opioids, cocaine, and other things. It’s not a gateway drug. I call it a “drive-through drug “… you’ll drive-through McDonalds, Taco Bell, or Burger King after you smoke, but that’s about it. So that [misperception] is still out there — once you take one hit, that’s it for you. You automatically become a drug addict.
The most important thing right now that we really need to watch out for when it comes to cannabis is our lack of work productivity. It does make you lazy. And that’s why I strongly discourage people from using it on the days that they’re working, or going to lunch and blazing one up. It’s just like having a drink at lunch. No, that’s totally unacceptable.
SQ: In addition to its medicinal benefits, what do black people need to better understand about the economic benefits of the cannabis industry?
RJS: This industry [has] had a really, really slow start and hasn’t gotten off as well as it should; mostly because the black market is undercutting it. But once we’re able to close down the black market, this will be an ongoing business that will be in our communities. And if there are going to be medical cannabis facilities … and recreational dispensaries in our communities, I want to make sure it’s black-owned.
[Because] it’s going to happen … and I just want to make sure we’re not standing in the shadows waiting to see what happens and then it takes off and we’re closed out.
SQ: What about the racial inequities in the cannabis industry? How are you ensuring that black people will be able to get a piece of that $7 billion pie?
Our good friends on the City Council, [like] Councilman Herb Wesson, has led legislation to ensure that, at least for the first year, minorities have first opportunities to get licenses in Los Angeles. In Oakland, they have the same type of program.
And our good friend, State Senator Steve Bradford has gotten $10 million in the [California] budget to start a social equity statewide program. And once this bill is passed and we’re funding it, we will have what is called an ombudsman, or an inspector general, who I believe will be African-American, to come up with a strategy to ensure that minorities have a stake statewide in getting [their] businesses off the ground [by] using state resources to make that happen.
Starlett Quarles is a Gen X advocate, public speaker and host of the internet TV Talk Show, “The Dialogue with Starlett Quarles.” For more, visit www.TheDialogueLA.com.