Getting schooled by Charlo Greene

Reporter, turned activist, Charlo Greene talks about race and drugs.

Iwanted to talk to Charlo Greene, a business woman and reporter who gained notoriety after she quit her job on-air while covering a story on the Alaska Cannabis Club, a medical marijuana organization in Alaska. Since that moment, Greene has lived in the public spotlight, building a career for herself while also striving to increase diversity in the growing marijuana industry.

I wanted to talk to her because the more I learned about cannabis, the more I wondered about diversity. It seemed to me that a big and important part of successful legalization arguments centers on the racial bias in law enforcement that leads to the mass incarceration of minorities, especially blacks, with huge human and economic costs. And yet, three years into legalization in Colorado, progress in criminal justice reform is minimal.

There is no movement in expunging records for charges that would now be legal, little talk of reparations for communities adversely affected by the war on drugs, racial disparities in arrest rates for marijuana persist and the now-legal industry is overwhelmingly run by whites, while those with criminal records are often not eligible to own or work in cannabis businesses.

I wondered why no one was talking about race and drugs anymore, why the narrative that was once so compelling to advocates and public officials had fallen silent. Silent, except for a few, vocal black women in the industry, namely Wanda James of Denver and Charlo Greene.

So when I finally got a chance to talk to Greene a few months ago, I was immediately impressed by her vehemence and fearlessness. In comparison, I felt sheepish, suddenly aware that while I recognized there was a problem, I was far from understanding its severity and depth.

Feebly, I asked Greene to “help me understand the race problem and what to do about it.”

“Are you talking about the fact that cannabis prohibition is racist to begin with?” Greene asks. “Because that’s the root of it. If we are gonna talk about it and keep it real then let’s talk about the history of marijuana prohibition. It is racist … we’ve never really been welcome here as a people and now mass incarceration is just another way to maintain this status quo that’s always been in place in the United States.“

There is a new wave of consensus that this is the case, and, since talking to Greene, I have spoken to various experts who agree that the drug war is creating a human rights crisis, domestically and internationally,

There is also no shortage of current literature to back these claims, two of the best books I’ve read on the topic are The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and Politics of Punishment by Michael Javen Fortner, both of which paint a picture of the social and political mechanisms that drive drug policies and ought to be on any drug advocates reading list.

Whatever hesitancy I once had to tiptoe around the “race problem” is quickly dissipating. This is a human problem that reaches far into the infrastructure of the society we all share. The drug war is about keeping money in the hands of a few, keeping entire populations locked in the vicious cycle of drug addiction and incarceration, and justifying a militant presence in neighborhoods around the country and the world. 

One need only follow the money to see who is in support of continued prohibition and why. A recent report from The Intercept by Lee Fang found that “roughly half of the money raised to oppose a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in California is coming from police and prison guard groups, terrified that they might lose the revenue streams to which they have become so deeply addicted.”

Greene and I talked about California’s war on drugs specifically. She teared up talking about the scenes in Straight Outta Compton depicting police violence in black neighborhoods.

“That’s how they were fighting the war on marijuana, the war on weed, the war on drugs in black communities,” Greene says. “It looks like a war zone, half a world away and no one gives a shit about that, that was just a snippet. Now that there are white children who can be helped if we possibly stop locking up some black people, I guess we are gonna talk about it.”

Greene isn’t going to let us forget that this is, at its core, a social justice issue. She is a vocal activist, tireless entrepreneur and is working to start Go Greene, a nonprofit that seeks to end prohibition by applying a networking model to communities of color, to encourage them to lead the end of prohibition and seize the economic opportunities offered by the lucrative emerging industry.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.