Black History Month is a time to reflect on the endless contributions black people have made throughout history, and the cannabis industry is no exception. Despite expanding marijuana legalization, the ripples of prohibition continue to negatively impact African-Americans, challenging those at the forefront of legal cannabis to build an industry that makes up for the ills of an unjust drug war.
Here, we highlight six notable African-Americans spanning entertainment, education, sports, politics and, naturally, the cannabis industry, who are using their notoriety to foster education, build businesses and affect policies for the benefit of the industry as a whole.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders
Dr. Joycelyn Elders’ short tenure as U.S. Surgeon General under President Clinton ended due to her outspoken views in support of sex education. In 1993, a full three years before California voters approved the nation’s first medical cannabis laws, she encouraged the government’s study of the legalization of drugs as a means of reducing violent crime.
Dr. Elders is currently Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and she’s on the leadership team for Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, an organization “dedicated to the advocacy for the legalization, taxation and—above all—the effective regulation” of cannabis.
Multiple award-winning actress, comedian and TV host Whoopi Goldberg has been open about her marijuana use for years and has even written a tribute to her vape pen.
In 2016, she launched Whoopi & Maya, a cannabis brand she co-founded with industry pioneer Maya Elisabeth, to develop products that offer relief to women suffering from painful menstrual cramps. Whoopi may not be the only celebrity with a presence in the cannabis marketplace, but she’s the first to call attention to cannabis as a holistic resource that can address the specific needs of women.
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Cory Booker rose to prominence as mayor of Newark for two terms prior to being elected as New Jersey’s first African-American senator in 2013.
A strong proponent of bipartisanship in government, Senator Booker took the reins and introduced the Marijuana Justice Act in 2017 with the goal of removing cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances. While the passage of this bill is a long shot, Senator Booker views it as a critical first step in reversing the wrongs done to people of color and low-income individuals as a result of the War on Drugs.
One could argue that rapper, actor and pop culture phenomenon Snoop Dogg has played a pivotal role in the mainstreaming of cannabis. Never shying away from celebrating “smokin’ endo” in his music, Snoop has created a celebrity persona living an upfront and unabashedly pro-cannabis lifestyle.
While managing to continually reinvent himself professionally, Snoop has decimated the lazy stoner stigma by building a cannabis empire that includes venture capital firm Casa Verde, cannabis brand Leafs by Snoop and cannabis lifestyle website Merry Jane.
Wanda James became the first black woman to co-own a dispensary in Colorado when she opened Simply Pure with her husband in 2015. Angered by the 1992 arrest and sentencing of her then-teenage brother to years of hard labor for possessing four ounces of cannabis, Wanda came to view legal cannabis as a means for change. She believes that transparency about cannabis use will go far in reducing harmful stigmas and nurturing diversity in the industry.
In addition to being an active member of Colorado’s cannabis industry, Wanda’s president of marketing and communications firm Cannabis Global Initiative.
Heisman Trophy-winner and retired National Football League (NFL) player Ricky Williams has been advocating for medical cannabis since the early 2000s. His cannabis use would result in multiple failed drug tests, but Ricky’s openness about the plant’s pain- and stress-relieving properties (he says cannabis is his preferred treatment for depression and social anxiety disorder) helped spark the conversation that continues today about the NFL’s drug policy. He ultimately walked away from pro football to pursue a life of his own choosing. Now a sports analyst and public speaker, Ricky remains an outspoken advocate for cannabis as viable pain management for NFL players.
These are just a few of the better known African-American industry pioneers helping to reshape attitudes about cannabis and the people who consume it. There are countless others on the ground doing critical work every day—from improving patient access to vocalizing the need for equity in emerging legal markets—fostering the singular vision of a diverse, inclusive cannabis industry.