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The Cannabis Industry Has Always Been Rooted in Racism. Black Chefs Are Pushing Back

Black chefs cooking with cannabis are reclaiming the traditions of medicinal cooking

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When chef Megon Dee-Cave moved to Portland, Oregon, with her family in 2016, she did it with the goal of learning more about cannabis. Five years earlier, when she owned her own bakery in Baltimore, customers began inquiring about edibles, which led her to experiment with combining cannabis and food for the first time. Once in Portland, she immersed herself in the recreational industry, only to find she was one of a small number of Black people involved. “A lot of times I was the only female brown face in the room, making me hyper-[visible],” she says to Eater via email, referring to her first job as a chef at one of the largest cannabis corporations in the state. “When [Black women] fail, it is personified a little bit louder than the applause for when we achieve.”

After a couple years developing other companies’ edibles menus, Dee-Cave decided to branch out on her own. Last year she founded her own brand of edibles, Oracle Infused. Dee-Cave is still one of few Black women in Oregon’s legal cannabis industry — catering to a customer base that is predominantly people of color.

Despite their scarcity, Black people and other people of color can offer the industry a unique perspective on cannabis’s potential to heal or to harm in American society: Put plainly, even in states where cannabis use is legal, people of color are still the main targets of enforcement. Unlike many hailed in glossy magazines as pioneers of the legal weed industry, Dee-Cave was only able to build her career as a cannabis chef after going through the process of having cannabis prohibition-related charges expunged from her record in Maryland. “As a war on drugs veteran, I suffered from PTSD in dealing with law enforcement,” she writes, adding that she won the expungement “using my own resources and knowledge which was trivial and frustrating at times.”

As a Black chef working with cannabis, Dee-Cave’s experience stands at the intersection of the industry’s promising future and the legacy of prohibition that bolsters it. According to the ACLU, Black people across the country are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as their white counterparts, despite both races using the drug at similar rates. Last year a Drug Policy Alliance report found that in the three years after Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, arrests for possession decreased 51 percent for white people but only 25 percent for Black people. In Washington, which legalized recreational cannabis that same year, Black users are now arrested at double the rate of everyone else.

Making this even more egregious, people with previous marijuana possession charges, as Dee-Cave once had, are legally barred from many branches of the industry. The 2018 Farm Bill includes language banning anyone with a controlled substance felony from participating in the newly legal hemp industry (responsible for the explosion of CBD products in states without legal recreational cannabis) for 10 years after conviction. Only a handful of states offer expungement programs like the one Dee-Cave went through in Maryland. “Unlike many,” she says, “I was granted the ability to have a second chance at life with a clean slate.”

In recent years, edibles have enjoyed a conspicuous rebranding from buttery brownies traded among burnouts to culinarily elevated go-tos sold with a “wellness” halo. The creeping availability of medical cannabis (legal in 23 states, plus Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Michigan, Vermont, Massachusetts, Alaska, Maine, and Washington, D.C., where recreational cannabis is also legal) has meant more people than ever are turning to cannabis-infused foods, from prepackaged snacks to full-on meals. It’s no wonder, then, that cannabis foods and cooking have melded so easily with mainstream cooking culture. In 2016, Viceland started airing Bong Appétit, a show about gourmet cannabis cooking. Last year, Netflix followed suit with its own cannabis cooking competition show, Cooking on High. Anyone looking for a cannabis cookbook nice enough for the kitchen shelf have dozens of books to choose from. And a new tier of aspirational, luxury cannabis culture has emerged: High-end retailer Barneys opened its own cannabis edible and accessory shop in its Beverly Hills location in March, offering items like a $950 designer bong.

In its new social legitimacy, the field of cannabis cooking is, perhaps unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly white and draped in apolitical fascination. A 2017 New Yorker profile about chef Laurie Wolf, “The Martha Stewart of Marijuana Edibles,” focuses on the high-end polish of her business, but makes no mention of how Wolf’s whiteness facilitates that achievement. The real Martha Stewart, meanwhile, has famously made brownies with cannabis enthusiast Snoop Dogg, joking all the while about making them “green.” She recently announced she’d consult with a Canadian cannabis company to develop human- and pet-friendly products, cleverly playing with her straight-laced public persona while attaching herself to a brand that was acquired for $353 million in 2015.

But we’ve never seen Stewart ask Snoop, a Black man, about how he’s likely seen members of his community arrested and imprisoned for possessing marijuana. In her hands, it’s a novel ingredient. In a Black person’s hands, it’s a “controlled substance.”

Cannabis prohibition has always been rooted in racism. As author Eric Schlosser recounts in his 2003 book Reefer Madness, cannabis, unregulated and commonly used medicinally in the 19th century, was only demonized after Mexican and West Indian immigrants and Black musicians popularized smoking it recreationally in the 1910s. By 1937, the drug was illegal, and in 1970, Nixon administration Attorney General John Mitchell categorized it as a Schedule I controlled substance. Its association with Black and brown people played a large part in the racialized enforcement of marijuana laws during Ronald Reagan’s mass incarceration-fueling drug war of the 1980s.

In the 1990s, cannabis enjoyed more positive attention as media outlets increasingly focused on its medicinal benefits. And as immigration law and policy expert Steven W. Bender explains in “The Colors of Cannabis: Race and Marijuana,” medicinal benefits and economic opportunity became centerpieces of state legalization campaigns. “Anecdotally, a Washington advocate for marijuana legalization told me that racial profiling arguments won’t win legalization campaigns and instead will alienate voters,” Bender writes. “Rather than a desire to dismantle laws with disproportionate impact on users of color, more evident in the campaigns for legalizing recreational marijuana was disdain for feathering the nest of the illicit drug cartels, widely assumed to be operatives of color.”

With recreational legalization first occurring in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, states with smaller populations of people of color, and the high amount of bootstrapping required in many marijuana businesses, legal cannabis use took on an overwhelmingly white face early on, he continues. The result is a newly sanctioned industry that reinforces cultural stigma against cannabis users of color.

For Los Angeles chef Matt Stockard, fighting against the perception of cannabis food as a means of getting intoxicated, rather than a means of getting well, is a constant battle. Dispelling that stigma is part of what inspired him to develop medicated items like salt, pepper, milk, and cream. “In the Black community you’re considered uneducated if you deal with cannabis,” he says. “And until the stigma is brought off of it, you’re going to have a lot of people who are just going to continue [to have that stigma] because of smokers.” He hopes that the brand of cannabis cooking oils he is developing — a legal cannabis product under California’s strict edibles regulations — can help legitimize medicated cooking for the masses.

Black chefs cooking with cannabis, then, are more than just vanguards: Their work represents a reclaimed self-determinism of medicinal cooking.

“It’s an easily accessible medication that I think every community should take advantage of, especially the Black community,“ Maryland chef Gwenelle Parks says, citing Black communities’ historic distrust of medical institutions. “We’ve been [self-medicating with cannabis] for a long time... but if you actually need it as medicine, there’s different ways to go about it.” For Parks, cooking with cannabis was a natural extension of her Virgin Islander family’s herbalist traditions. “No matter what it is, I try to put [Caribbean flavors and herbs] in there and make it a medicinal meal,” she says, citing lemon balm as one ingredient she likes to use in dishes for its calming effect. However, growing up in Baltimore County with a forensic scientist and a correctional officer for parents, cannabis was naturally taboo. It wasn’t until adulthood, after Parks tried cannabis casually at parties, that she started to learn about the racist history of its prohibition and its potential as a medicinal herb. “I sat back and I realized when I was doing it recreationally, I was actually medicating,” she says.

Parks and her husband, Will, who is white, already owned condiment company Saucier Willy when they started shopping their cannabis-infused simple syrup to dispensaries in their area in 2017. (Under Maryland law, cannabis foods are still illegal, while items like tinctures and drinks are not.) The owner of one dispensary asked the professional chefs if they would teach a cannabis cooking class to his patients. Since then, the two have been providing the lessons to interested self-healers in classes across Maryland. There, by law, only the Parkses can touch and ingest their cannabis, but that doesn’t prevent them from imparting their knowledge along with non-medicated samples and detailed, take-home instructions. They also provide free recipes on the Saucier Willy website. “For [me and Will], it’s just imperative to bring the knowledge that you can do this yourself,” says Parks. “You don’t have to go to the store and spend $25 for 100 milligrams of something.”

Across the country, accessibility is also a driving concern for Seattle chef Unika Noiel. Coming from a family of soul food chefs and restaurateurs, she had already started catering and gone to culinary school before she beginning to experiment with cannabis-infused foods in 2009. Inspired by a positive first edible experience, courtesy of the burgeoning Washington medical marijuana industry (the state legalized recreational marijuana in 2012), she began researching the health benefits of eating cannabis, developing her own recipes and perfecting their dosages. After a few years, Noiel developed her own product: cannabis-infused pound cake bites she could proudly present to dispensaries and her wary family alike. “I tell people one of the greatest days of my life was the day that my grandmother looked at me and said, ‘You got any marijuana?’” Noiel was proud to be able to offer her grandmother something to ease her discomfort as she suffered from cancer. “This Southern woman, this preacher’s wife: I never could have imagined either of us having this conversation. It was quite life affirming.”

Still, for Noiel, the legacy of prohibition didn’t stop at generational stigma. In summer 2017, under her company Luvn Kitchn, she held her first Fellowship Dinner, a community event based on Southern Sunday dinners at which she served cannabis-infused soul food. Noiel and her dinners attracted media attention, and she became one of few visible Black entrepreneurs in Washington’s cannabis-adjacent industry. However, Seattle’s Department of Finance also took notice and, by the year’s end, served Noiel a notice to cease and desist. “I signed an agreement stating that Luvn Kitchn would not conduct any cannabis-infused Fellowship Dinners until it obtained a cannabis business license,” she said. The only problem: As of yet, no such license exists for chefs, and the state is currently not even accepting new applications for retail or producer licenses.

As a result, Noiel can no longer offer dinners to the public (though she can still offer infused dinners as a hired chef for private events). Though she charged barely more than what the dinners cost her, she says she lost the chance to build them into the successful event series she imagined. What was initially her foot into Washington’s lucrative and overwhelmingly white legal cannabis industry — one where a cap on the number of retail store licenses issued, closed license applications, and criminal history restrictions limit how many entrepreneurs can become growers, processors, and sellers — has since become an example of one of the ways it remains inaccessible.

“The system is currently set up for inequity to continue,” she says. “It forced me to accept the fact that as a Black woman and entrepreneur here in Washington state, I would not be allowed to ‘receive any sort of gain from cannabis’ — a direct quote from a city official.” Noiel says that when people from her predominantly white former customer base ask why she isn’t selling more products and doing more dinners, she doesn’t hesitate to share her opinions on how race and racism factor into who can and can’t take part in the industry.

In the previous decades of racist prohibition, Black chefs working with cannabis were denied the respect of entrepreneurs, innovators, and culinary trailblazers. The continued policing of cannabis-using Black and brown people is easy for many to gloss over in the face of dispensary billboards and sleek, luxury store-ready packaging. Nevertheless, the current moment in cooking with cannabis can’t be fully appreciated without that part of the story. Black chefs working in the field are social leaders in their own right, working against racist stigma as they pursue their passions in this burgeoning field. And while U.S. systems of legalization and commercialism have often considered Black people as an afterthought, chefs like Parks, Dee-Cave, Noiel, and Stockard are forging a new tradition of healing through food.

Ann-Derrick Gaillot is a freelance writer based in Montana.
Daniel Fishel is an illustrator based out of Queens, New York, who has worked for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and NPR.
Fact-checker: Monica Burton
Editor: Erin DeJesus


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