It took a while for the Rev. Al Sharpton to jump aboard the legalization movement’s soul train. The founder of the National Action Network and MSNBC talking head had long protested pretty much every issue that affects people of color, except for the drug issue.
I’ve known Sharpton since the late ’70s, when I was a young music journalist and he was one of the great R&B star James Brown’s best friends. After writing a cover story about the Godfather of Soul for New York’s Soho Weekly News in 1979, I had terrific access to Soul Brother No. 1. I met Sharpton on many occasions in the company of Brown, and wrote about it in my 1988 New York magazine article, “The Reverend and the Godfather.”
That same year I started working for High Times. Marijuana had become my beat.
About 12 years ago, I ran into Sharpton in New York’s Hilton Hotel. He was heading up an escalator and asked what I was up to when he saw me. I told him I now had a job as an editor at High Times.
“That’s good,” he said, shaking his head up and down. “Real good.”
I added: “We’re trying to legalize maijuana,” and Sharpton repeated. “Real good.”
That’s when I knew the Reverend was on our side.
He’d long been a controversial figure on the New York scene, often leading rallies over police brutality and housing concerns. But Sharpton’s insistence that Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old girl from the upstate village of Wappingers Falls, had been raped by four white men, including a police officer, in 1987, tarnished his reputation both locally and nationally. Her accusations were ultimately ruled false by a grand jury.
It took nearly two decades for him to get back in the public’s good graces. By 2010, Sharpton began appearing as a pundit on MSNBC and soon had his own program, PoliticsNation. He’d lost a lot of weight and looked like a new man. Mainstream America was finally ready to embrace the Reverend.
Though he’d not spoken on it, Sharpton was clearly watching as state after state began to legalize first medical marijuana and then recreational cannabis, starting with Colorado and Washington in 2012. While things were changing out West, New York City was in the throes of a marijuana-arrest epidemic, with as many as 50,000 busts per year under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Stop-and-frisk, it turns out, was the instrument for so many of those arrests. When ending the New York police’s stop-and-frisk policy became the new rallying cry in New York (it was ruled unconstitutional in 2013), the city’s sky-high marijuana-arrest totals became a major part of the discussion.
Last June 17, Rev. Sharpton delivered a keynote address at the Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo at the Javits Center in New York. Diversity has deservedly become a buzzword in the marijuana world, and he was there to talk about it. Here’s what the reverend had to say:
• “We at the National Action Network look at this as a civil rights, a human rights and a decriminalization issue. But none of the members of the group can benefit if we don’t all benefit.”
• “A reporter asked me, ‘Do I smoke weed?’ That’s always the first question. Well, over a decade ago, I came out in support of same-sex marriage, and I’m not gay. I come here to say that weed must be decriminalized, and I don’t smoke weed. We’re tired of seeing young black and Latino people disproportionately go to jail for possessing weed in small amounts, while the culprits that broke the economy walk away unscathed with no criminal indictments or prosecution.”
• “Why do I support it? Because blacks and Latinos account for about a third of the population in New York, yet 85% of the people arrested for marijuana possession are black and Latino. Because possession of marijuana is at the top of the misdemeanor arrests in the state of New York. A lot of people do not understand that there are consequences that are almost unthinkable. You can lose your residence in city housing if you have a marijuana conviction. You can be held and detained by Immigration if you have a marijuana conviction. You can be denied employment if you have a marijuana conviction. You can be refused admission to certain colleges if you have a marijuana conviction. This disproportionately impacts people of color.”
• “We cannot talk about civil rights and fair housing and fair immigration without addressing the criminalization of marijuana.”
• “Let me also challenge the cannabis industry. The industry must be inclusive of blacks and Latinos and people of color. We can’t, on one side, have the disproportionate punishment and, on the other side, have a disproportionate lack of involvement and business opportunities in this industry. This industry last year went up to $7 billion, yet less than 1% of dispensaries are owned and operated by blacks. We need to raise the level of activism in the industry, but we must also raise ownership, management and participation on the business side. We don’t need to be locked up by law enforcement and locked out by the industry.”
• “My message to you is that we must take on those that would try to shut the industry down, but we must also take on those in the industry that want to shut us out. This must be a people’s movement.”
• “This is a call to action, for all of us to stand against reactionary criminal-justice policies, policies against those with medical needs and policies against those that would disproportionately suffer in communities of color. We also must deal with reactionary forces in the industry that want to use it as a private club to become oligarchs.”
• “I stand with you. I will see you at the barricades.”
Sharpton’s message was so well received that he spoke at the next two CWCBExpo events in Los Angeles in September and Boston in October. Interestingly, Trump adviser Roger Stone, who also spoke in New York, was booted from the L.A. and Boston events after an uproar in the cannabis community against him. Sharpton encouraged the CWC to cut him loose.
On a personal note, after his speech in New York, I walked up to the stage and said hello to Sharpton. He greeted me warmly, then announced to anyone who cared to listen:
“He was James Brown’s favorite music journalist!”
Amen, Reverend Al, amen.