Black & Green

Filmmaker sparks conversation about inclusion in cannabis industry

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Last January, freelance journalist Mehka King set out to create what he thought would be a short film about the cannabis industry and, more importantly, why even as more states begin to decriminalize the use or sale of marijuana, less than 1 percent of owners and entrepreneurs in the growing industry are people of color. “I was surprised because I would have figured that we would have been the first ones involved,” says King.

He set out on a mission to uncover how pop culture, politics, and generational issues shape the way people of color view cannabis and its use via The Color Green, a feature-length documentary set to wrap filming next month. As King interviewed politicians, activists, and hip-hop artists at the forefront of the push for the legalization of cannabis, he realized that at the root of the disconnect between minority entrepreneurs and the legal cannabis industry is a severe lack of information.

With four more months of filming scheduled, King decided to bring the conversation to life with the “Cash Color Cannabis” panel series, which kicked off in September. On the eve of the series’ second installment, set to take place Wed., Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Omen Agency (299 Peters Street SW), we talk to King about closing the divide between perception and opportunity.

Was there one particular conversation that made you realize you had a bigger story on your hands than could be tackled in a short film?

Yes. I was speaking to Michael Hempzar, he’s a hemp activist down here. And we were speaking about ownership primarily and he was like, “It goes back to growing and ownership. If we just realize that we can grow cannabis, we’ll get back to growing everything for ourselves. And before you know it, we’ll get back to owning our land.” That’s when I realized that this is a bigger conversation. Because he’s right: we need to have more ownership in our community; we need to get back to growing our own food and taking more responsibility for what’s happening around us. And I think that the legalization of cannabis on so many levels across the country is a prime opportunity for people of color to start taking back control of their local government and communities and start taking back control of the money that we spend.

You’ve spoken to people in states where cannabis is legal for recreational or medical use and states where it hasn’t been legalized at all. Have you found that there is a common factor keeping people of color from getting involved?

I feel like there are two big problems. The biggest problem really is lack of knowledge: Most people don’t look past the fact that they can use, which ties into the second problem. It’s all about image and perception. Most people aren’t thinking that when they buy from a dispensary instead of getting it from the corner, the dispensary is getting it from somewhere else. So there’s a whole line of people making money from the money you’re spending. People aren’t thinking about the fact that it’s a business now, not just something that you can do. Most people don’t take the initiative to go a step further and find out how this business is being run. Even from a political standpoint: Who is the city council person in charge saying that this area can be zoned for a dispensary and this one can’t? The film gives us an opportunity to break these issues down from the standpoint our viewers can relate to.

What have you observed about the cannabis industry locally in the year that you’ve been working on this film?

The cannabis industry in Atlanta is underground because it has to be. There’s nothing legal in the state of Georgia outside of CBD oil, which is only available through Halogen Organics. And for you to buy from them, you have to fit into a certain category of illnesses that would allow you to get a prescription for it. And then you’d have to find a doctor that would allow you to do it.

The people I do see who are involved are mostly on the edible side and they have a really dope underground scene down here. You have so many different brands doing cookies, brownies, popcorn, things like that. And they all niche up. And they all do their own private events and they’re all flourishing as they wait for these laws to change.

No value assignedAre these people also involved in attempting to change the laws?
I’m not sure. I think, again, most people are looking at it like, “Eventually it’ll happen, but for now I’m working how I can work.” But they don’t realize that they could actually make a lot of changes. You have somebody like Senator Vincent Fort who’s running for mayor next year on a stance of decriminalizing cannabis. He might be somebody you wanna get to know better as a politician because he might be someone to vote for to help your cause. Or find out more about what’s happening with Ted Terry, who’s already decriminalized cannabis in Clarkston, so that if you’re caught with an ounce or less, that’s only a ticket in his community. I’m not sure everyone working in the cannabis industry locally is getting behind the politicians who are trying to help them.

That’s why I took the initiative with the Cash Color Cannabis event to bring the activists and politicians I’ve been meeting and give the community a chance to discuss the things I feel you need to know in Georgia if you’re ever going to try to get into the industry.

Do you plan these discussions with specific topics of conversation in mind?

Yes, I do. The first one, in September was about getting active. So I brought out Sharon Ravert, who’s the executive director of Peachtree Norml; James Bell who’s the founder of Georgia C.A.R.E., my friend Michael Hempzard, who I mentioned; as well as my business partner Yohannes Warner who runs Hydroponics Wars, which is a reality show based out of the San Francisco Bay Area. And the goal was to get people active and involved and knowing about these organizations. So we spoke again about some of the laws that need to be changed, how they affect people of color primarily when it comes to cannabis, and how we can get involved with one of these groups. Or just getting other people active yourself, knowing that ‘Okay, these politicians can help us if we want to do this. These politicians are talking about expanding coverage for people who need cannabis for medical reasons. These politicians are talking about all the things we agree on, so how do we support them?”

The one we’re doing on Dec. 7, the conversation is about how we can change the image of the user. How can we help media understand that it’s not about just using cannabis, it’s not about continuing some of the same stereotypes you see. Because after a point, no matter what laws you pass —Obama could come out and say cannabis is no longer illegal and you can use it everyday — we’ll still be getting arrested and penalized because of what you see on TV. We’re still portrayed as the criminals. So unless we can figure out a way within the media to change the image of how we use this by broadcasting the image of some of the people I’ve been speaking with. Like, Leafhead was created by two black men. But you don’t see that on shows like “Weediquette”; you’re having conversations with people in trap houses with guns around them and masks around their faces because they’re still criminals. At some point, we have to elevate the conversation.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle in changing the narrative around cannabis and people of color?

When I spoke to Reggie Osse of “The Combat Jack Show,” he made a great point: Urban media isn’t covering the cannabis industry at all. ScottyATL recently did a partnership to release his own strain. And only a few urban music outlets covered it. Reggie raised the point that we’re going to have to start cultivating cannabis reporters. We have people who cover events and sports, but for some reason we don’t have anyone reporting on this growing industry. We’re gonna have to start educating writers to do this. And there are actually quite a few smaller outlets like Herbs TV that strictly cover the cannabis industry from a business standpoint.

Do you think that artists turned cannabis entrepreneurs like Wiz Khalifa or Snoop Dogg help or hinder the advances people of color are making in the industry?

I think it plays a part. There are plenty of rappers involved in the cannabis industry. But they only talk about their use of cannabis, they rarely talk about the business. At some point, if they start speaking about their ownership, it might spark others to think about the business side. Snoop is an executive producer on the MTV show “Mary Jane,” but he doesn’t talk about it unless he’s talking to an outlet like Forbes. Talk to us about it.

Speaking of “Mary Jane,” would a show like that be as well received or treated the same way if the main characters were people of color?

I think you’d have to change the narrative. For one, you can’t be as happy-go-lucky about the situation. There has to be some element of danger, some element of ignorance, and some element of you remembering that this is still a crime in most states. Shows like Mary Jane or Weeds definitely help evolve the conversation and change the way people think about cannabis. But as interesting as they are, they always leave that part out: this is still a crime. Even people with legal dispensaries can’t put their money in the bank because, federally, they are still committing a felony. I feel like if you had people of color in those same roles, you would be reminded that this is a crime even if just by the fact that they’re constantly dogging police. But for centuries we’ve watched people of color be left out of the conversation. So it’s really no wonder why we don’t participate.

#CashColorCannabis. With moderator Mehka King, director of The Color Green and founder of Invisible Man Media; and featured panelists Charles Joseph, vp of development for Leafhead; Ebony Knight, regional director of NORML; Daniel Macris, founder/CEO of Halycon Organics, and Gindi of Northbound Films. Free with RSVP: 7 p.m. Wed., Dec. 7. Omen Agency, 299 Peters Street S.W.