Leah Thomas—one of our 2021 Changemakers—was 23 when she started recreationally using cannabis. She was living in California in 2018, the year marijuana became legal for adult usage in the state. The Missouri native grew up with the mindset that cannabis was nothing more than a gateway drug, but within the comfort of legalization, she began to explore it. It quickly became clear to her that legalization introduced another layer of cannabis inequities.
“Living in Southern California, it just started to irk me that it was so de-stigmatized here for a lot of white users. But being from St. Louis, I knew that people that looked like me from back home weren’t afforded that same luxury,” says Thomas. “I love Martha Stewart, but I saw her in the New York Times with a necklace of weed gummies—it was a whole article about her and how she’s dabbling in cannabis and CBD. And it made me cringe, as a Black woman, because I see what’s happening.”
What’s happening is that the legal cannabis industry, which is projected to reach $30 billion in sales by 2025, is dominated by white people. Eighty percent of legal cannabis businesses are white-owned while Black and brown people continue to feel the repercussions of the War on Drugs, an era of discriminatory policies that disproportionately hurt communities of color. As of September 2019, more than 70 percent of federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses in the United States are Black or Hispanic, despite collectively comprising about 30 percent of the population.
“It felt unfair that I can walk into a dispensary in Southern California without any legal repercussions, but for a majority of people across the country who look like me, the potential for imprisonment is still very real,” says Thomas. “I don’t like that so much of the current cannabis industry, that is primarily white-led where people are now making billions of dollars, is not really talking about the War on Drugs in their messaging as much as I feel they should be. And how there needs to be some cannabis reparations involved in the industry.”
Fighting the fight
You may know Thomas as @greengirlleah—in May 2020, she made a viral Instagram post that illuminated the connection between climate justice and social justice; her following quickly grew from 13,000 to 200,000. At the time, she was furloughed from her job at sustainable clothing retailer Patagonia. When the company offered to bring her back, she saw two options: “Either go back to working full time at a company that I really like, or I take a shot and start this other organization—really just dedicate my life solely to activism,” she says. In June of 2020, she left her job to found Intersectional Environmentalist, a collective of environmental activists dedicated to dismantling systems of oppression in the environmental movement.
Having built a strong environmental base, Intersectional Environmentalist is now stepping into the cannabis space. In October 2020, Thomas launched The Greens Girl Co., an experiment of what radical transparency and wealth distribution can look like in the cannabis industry. This project is currently a work in progress with more details coming soon. Thomas will use both The Greens Girls Co. and the Intersectional Environmentalist platform to speak out about the inequities within the legal cannabis space. And this year, on 4/20, Intersectional Environmentalist will be launching a hemp roll collaboration with Emjayze Hemp, a brand founded by Amos Lozano that sells pre-rolled hemp.
With roots in environmentalism, Thomas says cannabis justice work has taken her a bit out of her depth. She graduated from Chapman University with a B.S. in environmental sciences and policy. And before working at Patagonia, she worked at environmentally conscious laundry brand Ecos.
“I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and, in some ways, it feels a little risky. I feel very safe when it comes to talking about the environment, it’s something that most people can get behind,” says Thomas. But she’s seen first hand why this work is so necessary. While visiting family for the holidays, she shared that she was selling ceramic pipes to raise funds to fight for cannabis justice and then learned that an older family member previously went to prison for drug possession and sales.
“I’m back from California saying, ‘Hey, I’m selling pipes because I’m trying to fight the fight and get people out of prison. And then I naively didn’t know that this man went to prison for the same thing that I’m trying to advocate against,'” she says. “There was a learning curve where he was like, ‘Maybe someone’s going to kick in the door, what’s going on, I don’t want to be caught with this stuff.’ It broke my heart to see that play out in real life.” Cannabis has caused a lot of people pain, and part of destigmatization is getting older generations of BIPOC to come around to the idea of cannabis and new measures of legalization.
The case for reparations
Thomas began doing cannabis justice work just days before voters in Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, and South Dakota voted to legalize marijuana, bringing the tally of states where weed is legal for adult use to 15, along with another 22 that have legalized it strictly for medicinal use.
“A lot of these legalizations, they’re not coming with restorative justice,” she says. “Not enough people are saying, “‘Okay, it’s legalized, [but] how can we improve the lives of all the people who have been in prison and targeted in our state and provide economic opportunities for them to grow?'”
When states legalize without considering restorative justice, she says they continue to perpetuate harm. From funding to legal hurdles, getting into the cannabis industry isn’t easy, especially if you were previously incarcerated. “The barrier to entry is almost impossible for a lot of people to get into unless they’re coming from a place of extreme wealth,” says Thomas.
Any brand that has managed to break through should be going out of its way to give back, says Thomas. “When I worked at Patagonia, they were a 1% for the Planet partner, and I think that’s great,” she says. “But the cannabis industry calls for something even more radical.” For example, 5 percent of proceeds from the Intersectional Environmentalist and Emjayze Hemp collaboration will go to BIPOC-led organizations and funds addressing restorative justice.
“Anyone profiting from the cannabis industry, especially because it’s illegal in the majority of the United States, should donate some of their proceeds to these organizations or bail funds,” says Thomas. “They should provide opportunities and pathways for growth within their own organization, too, for people who might be in prison for the exact same thing that they’re doing. They should hire people who might have non-violent drug offenses, and they should really go out of their way to use their platform to advocate for the end of marijuana prohibition for all.”
While Thomas uses her platforms to fight for legalization and reparations, she’s also fighting for de-stigmatization. She hopes to dissociate criminality from the idea of Black and brown people using cannabis, a stereotype that persists even within legalization. “I want there to be a future where Black and brown people get to experience joy and get to experience fun when it relates to cannabis, and we move beyond the painful legacy of the war on drugs,” she says.
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