BET’s upcoming two-hour original documentary, “Smoke: Marijuana + Black America,” is narrated and executive produced by multi-platinum rapper and entrepreneur, Nasir “Nas” Jones. It was announced in late October that the special exploring Black America’s complex relationship with marijuana and the fight to reap the benefits of legalization will premiere Wednesday, November 18th at 10pm ET/PT

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AUTHOR: Heather Allman

PUBLISHER: CANNABIS LAW REPORT 

 

BET’s upcoming two-hour original documentary, “Smoke: Marijuana + Black America,” is narrated and executive produced by multi-platinum rapper and entrepreneur, Nasir “Nas” Jones. It was announced in late October that the special exploring Black America’s complex relationship with marijuana and the fight to reap the benefits of legalization will premiere Wednesday, November 18th at 10pm ET/PT

 

Swirl Films, a leading independent TV & Urban Film Production company, has partnered with BET to produce the documentary and explore the imbalance in the cannabis industry.

While the legal cannabis industry is expected to generate $30 billion in sales by 2025, only 4.3 percent of dispensaries are currently Black owned—proving not everyone has a seat at the table.

BET Presents New Documentary: ‘Smoke: Marijuana + Black America’

 

On November 12, 2020, I had the unique opportunity and distinct pleasure of sitting down with ‘Smoke’ Co-Executive Producer, Tony Strickland, and ‘Smoke’ Director, Erik Parker, to talk about the making of, the message behind, and the stories told in the newly premiering BET documentary SMOKE: MARIJUANA + BLACK AMERICA. 

 

Cannabis Law Report: Why now? Please expand on and explain the importance of this series in an election year, or any year for that matter? I do think that this is a provocative topic that is long overdue for discussion. I mean it’s an important conversation anytime, but it’s so relevant right now.

Tony Strickland, unscripted for Swirl Films, Co-Executive Producer for ‘Smoke’

Tony Strickland, Co- Executive Producer/unscripted: Yeah, absolutely. So, our. I won’t go too deep into it but before I came to swirl I was a vice president of production over at BP so this project was actually pitched to me at pretty much like August of 2019. I was assigned to the project.
While I was there as a production exec, and I actually left to join us well film, October of 2019, and this project has been around for a while, Jason Daniels, who was the creative executive, and my partner at the sea.
When I went to Swirl. he sort of enlisted me to, co executive producer project, and, and then also attached to Eric Parker as the showrunner for the project so I think when we, when we made when we were making this project initially it was creatively was a little bit different as to what was pitched and what Eric and I sort of got together.
He and Jason Samuels and I wanted to tell a different story. I don’t think we were thinking about election year more as just, you know, how we wanted to talk about decriminalization of marijuana in the black and brown community.

Erik Parker, Director of ‘Smoke’

Erik Parker, Director: Tony and the Swirl team had this figured out before I came on, that we wanted to make an impact. The time frame and air date has moved around because our production was complicated by Covid-19. Now, as so many states are moving toward full adult recreational use, we have to make sure the people are well informed as legislation is being created and laws implemented. 

 

CLR: Talk to me a little about the complexity of this issue (the stereotypes, etc.) that promoted you to make this documentary. 

Erik Parker: Again, the Swirl Team and BET had the idea before I came on board. From my standpoint, I wanted to take the vision the SWIRL team had and shape it further in a way to make it feel personal to viewers.
It was important to show the people who actually use the products, like Wanda James and her Husband Scott Durrah. These are two black cannabis business owners who are respected in their community and active in politics. Yet, they like to smoke and are not ashamed of their marijuana usage. Same with some of the athletes that we highlight in the film, like Al Harrington and Ricky Williams.
These are high performing athletes. They use cannabis in a responsible way and it helps them. So the stereotypes are all wrong and don’t fit with the way people use weed and who those people are who use.
And over time, the images have been used to vilify black and brown people. SMOKE puts these outdated and wrongheaded ideas under examination.

CLR: How excited were you to work on this project and the kind of guiding the way it needs to turn out, Erik?

Erik Parker: I’m always looking for projects that you know are different. And I’m all for an opportunity to tell a story in a way that hadn’t been told, or a way that I can, I feel like I can make unique or connect in a way that I haven’t seen.
So, I was excited about this because there were so many, so many aspects to it as we touched on there in the social justice aspect, which is very prominent many people are aware of so many black and brown people who are locked up, or who have been arrested for possessing and selling marijuana and that’s really a defining a lot of peace of mind, and we barely made a shift in the country.
When it comes to collaboration in a lot of ways of marijuana, with a lot of work to be done. But there’s so many other aspects to this story that I think the public at large tend to overlook. Mostly because marijuana seemed like a subject that people think about it they think of something like people just getting high and having fun and wanting to chill out, so many different layers and level that needs to be bought.
As we move towards legalization, so I’m excited to be able to touch on different things, and learn things along the way.
So, income-atization is one. Legalization is another when we’re talking about the cannabis industry, and social equity, where you’re looking at people who are black and brown people who have been suffered so much from disproportionately from the criminalization from the plant, now being shut out from the upside, when it comes to businesses.
So we have to keep an eye on that. That is an additional aspect of it is important for America and aren’t designed to treat it in other ways, between, between black and brown people and white people at large.
So I mean there’s so many it’s so rich, and it’s so many different layers that are designed to be able to, you know, provide some insight or look at it from different angles, or that was documented.
Tony and the Swirl team had this figured out before I came on, that we wanted to make an impact. The time frame and air date has moved around because our production was complicated by Covid-19. Now, as so many states are moving toward full adult recreational use, we have to make it equitable for everyone, in every way.

 

CLR: Talk to me a little about the complexity of this issue (the stereotypes, etc.) that promoted you to make this documentary.

 

Tony Strickland: While doing research and talking to so many people who are working in this space. You know, you start to realize that around marijuana and marijuana use, people who smoke marijuana is about getting high and laughing and having a good time.
I think Cory Booker even bring that up in our interview with him in the documentary where he talked about so much more than just getting high, and I think people generally think that marijuana makes people lazy, gives them the chance to be more crazy.
And we try our best to in this documentary, to tell the history of that comes from movies. And once we uncover that and show that, then we can start, you know, digging up the roots and figuring out, you know, whether or not we talked to Al Harrington who’s about to go player, a basketball player.
And he talks about how were you playing basketball I think they actually. They actually have a history of policing marijuana more than other leagues. He talks about playing basketball and people using marijuana, and even great athletes to show the whole time. You know, model athletes.
And most people think that you can’t do anything but you can operate, a lot of times it’s medicine.
Erik Parker: From my standpoint, I wanted to take the vision the SWIRL team had and shape it further in a way to make it feel personal to viewers. It was important to show the people who actually use the products, like Wanda James and her husband Scott.
These are two black cannabis business owners who are respected in their community and active in politics. Yet, they like to smoke and are not ashamed of their marijuana usage. Same with some of the athletes that we highlight in the film, like Al Harrington and Ricky Williams. These are high performing athletes. They use cannabis in a responsible way and it helps them.
So the stereotypes are all wrong and don’t fit with the way people use weed and who those people are who use. And over time, the images have been used to vilify black and brown people. 
SMOKE puts these outdated and wrongheaded ideas under examination. 
Tony Strickland: I agree with Erik. I think it’s the complexity of the issue is really the core, and it’s so it has so it’s a wheel with so many prongs and so many spokes but I think you
You nailed that with your you know the disproportionate treatment of certain communities in the cannabis culture period from the prohibition era, all the way up to pushes for legalization.

People reflect the diversity of life, and the cannabis space needs more diversity and inclusiveness. 

 

CLR: At Swirl Films, how do you actively work to promote parity, diversity, and equality within your company? 

Erik Parker: Working with Swirl, as a work for hire, feels like a family. As a production company that often tells stories about black experiences and largely for a black audience, SWIRL makes it a mission to provide opportunities for black people to work and thrive. That’s important for me as a black filmmaker as well.

CLR: What are simple but effective ways that state-by-state U.S. cannabis brands can promote diversity in employment and create an inclusive atmosphere? 

Erik Parker: I’m not a cannabis activist but as a filmmaker, I have a point of view. In SMOKE, we talk to the experts and the people who have been working on this issue of diversity on multiple levels. People like previously  mentioned Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who oversaw a legislative push for marijuana legalization in the state that included social equity programs.
Illinois built in safeguards into their legislation that included expungements and decriminalization and opportunities for ownership in the black and brown communities. There are a lot of different ways social equity is being addressed and it’s still very much an ongoing exploration.
But we have to have these conversations and look it from different viewpoints to try and get it right as legalization happens around us. 
The purpose of this documentary, because we are actually filming it, which is, which is what is important for us to uncover stigmatization. So much of how we react to things as society is based upon what we see on TV or on the protests, something that we saw in the film, install on TV. And it’s become a vehicle film has become a vehicle for social injustice.
And actually we hope we do in some way or at least to get people thinking about this issue that are easily ignored, if you’re not paying attention, accurately and this has plenty to pay attention to. 
Tony Strickland: Just to echo that. If that is the case, we would want to tune in to aggregate the people that that don’t know, for me, it’s people that would normally watch a doc on marijuana like, you know, my mom or my dad, or my Aunties that I have been drilling in their mind to tune in to watch so they can get the education around the story that we’re telling because we are truly telling a different story. 

“People are passionate about subjects that they like to talk about, they want to be heard. They have some point of view.”

 

CLR: I am excited to see the whole thing myself because I really I think it’s going to be a nice perspective, or perspectives. I like to say into an issue that, as you said, might draw some people in because of a lot of the people that you got to work on the project with you, and the guests who were on there… how difficult was it to get people to participate on this documentary, to tell this story with you, or how did that all kind of come together?

Erik Parker: Well, we can looking people when it comes to thinking about this issue really wasn’t difficult. I mean obviously there’s always rescheduling and that sort of thing and timing and you know you have to film, you always have deadlines. so I mean that was generally the most difficult thing when you’re trying to deal with deadlines and that sort of thing.
Most people don’t talk to people like being real or not, like there are artists that are known to have smoked marijuana and they’ve never made any bones about it, but they’re very passionate about it because they know that society has gotten the wrong idea.
And they know that they can land there, arriving to the subject and offer some insight into the subject in a way that people wouldn’t expect. Because if you think of B. Real who was pleased to be in Cypress Hill. He’s kind of known as a stoner in a funny way, some way.
He always rapped about marijuana. When you look at him today talking about it, talking about many different levels of marijuana, and to the images that he tried to change around marijuana in black and brown communities.
So we look at those people, and we look at other people who worked on legislation to try to make it more equitable, and they’re all very passionate. They all want people to know what’s happening at a very pivotal moment in our, in our country when it comes to marijuana and legalization, and decriminalization.
So getting people to talk. What not difficult about this that we can people are passionate. It’s difficult to find people like John Boehner to talk about a subject like this, right, because, you know, we’ve demonstrated that there is some hypocrisy in his views, or at least he’s changed his views over time, and we show that in the film but there are several people in that they don’t want to have the light shined on them. How they changed or how they’re now profiting on this before they were not anti marijuana legalization.
And I think that’s exactly what I got from the guests that I did see is, there’s a passion there, that people work in diversity, equity. This is wide open, we have the opportunity to make this whatever kind of box we want it to be.

 

Filming with NAS, Producer and Narrator of ‘Smoke’ and Erik Parker, Director of ‘Smoke’

Tony Strickland: It’s all about connection. Connection that people want to have somewhere else, another direction. Some people who believe in decriminalization. Or maybe not.
People who believe in the realization. And, you know, but everybody’s moving toward the same direction when it comes to what they think is fair and equitable.
So I mean, even within the wheelhouse of people who know that we’re not going to be diversity of thought that everybody seems to be moving in the same direction. 

CLR: Just like that quote, the people reflect the diversity of life and and cannabis needs the diversity and inclusiveness that we see in life we need to have that reflected all the way around from the operators to the investors to the consumers. And I think that, you know, on that note, you know what, where are we really lacking in the cannabis industry what what do we need to, where do we need to start the work?

Erik Parker: I mean I can only go by, you know, I’m not an advocate. I mean, I’m not an activist filmmaker. So I mean, I can just basically can give you what I’ve learned from the film and and the people who are really close to this and have been working on in this in this realm, for years and years. I know that.
And those are the things that we use to elevate you know when we hear something that, you know, we think it’s very important that we change or need further examination.
Those are the topics that we looked at. So for example, decriminalization federal income is one of those is one of those aspects that need that needs to be changed, but we all pretty much on the same page with that as Americans, for the most part, you know, the majority of Americans are well aware of that tip of the iceberg.
But the water is when you go delve a little bit deeper and you start looking at that, looking at the cannabis business, you’ll start to see in the social activity that THAT is really where we were right on the cusp of that tipping point where it really matters how we handle and deliver licenses, and it matters how that’s regulated, all of that stuff matters where those things really are important.
So when when marijuana becomes legal in one state, it needs to be overlaid with social equity policy.
That makes sure that expire documents. And then we look the reason for that we have Ricky Williams, who was the NFL player who walked away from the league because they had to walk away from me because, because he sells marijuana.
And now he’s an advocate. So there’s different aspects that we wanted to make sure that we look at, aspects that might get lost in the fall. So all of those areas.
I mean these are just the overall image of what marijuana is and, and how it’s used as medicine people still don’t understand that marijuana and cannabis medicine. So all of those things need to really change and examine as we move forward.

 

CLR: And I would I would even say that you know there’s so many more states that just legalized it and and you know I mean as a, I would say to Tony as a producer and choosing which projects that you think lessons can be learned from,  and what you just told me, Erik, I appreciate that you know what you learned from the film. What were you hoping to really show like beyond that? Let’s talk about some of the issues at hand.

In Florida, you know, we have a case going on right now with vertical integration licensing with a black farmer who has been trying to get a license for years. So, I mean there’s a lot of I agree there’s depth there there’s a lot of depth. So, why exactly you know did unscripted want to want to bring this to fruition in the manner that you’re doing so.

Tony Strickland: Again, I go back to Jason Samuels.
Jason Samuels is a creator -one of the creative execs at BET- he came from a news background but has, you know, documentary experience.
So Jason is is a type of a very very smart person and it definitely looks for that sort of passion projects and projects he believes that BET should tell that story.
I would say, with with Eric T. at Swirl and the unscripted division is that, you know, Eric has been talking about getting into the documentary space.
And it’s kind of the same thing. Again, he wanted there it to be the, you know, the sort of marijuana doc. But once we once we sort of realized.
Erik Parker came on the show right and we realized that we wanted to tell a different story and a story that hadn’t been told, really told in a way that we feel like we tell it because we’re talking about politics, we’re talking about police force we’re talking about, you know, licensing we’re having a conversation with with somebody who is, you know, serving a heavy sentence in corporations and we’re talking about all of these issues that affect black and brown communities that, again, hopefully as I watch it, I can say out of the four or five things that we touch, I can say the film succeeded.
I know somebody that deals with that. Whether  it’s politics, you know, again, whether it’s sports, whether it’s somebody that’s in prison.
And so, Eric’s in the unscripted space for Swirl Films. He’s trying to selectively pitch documentaries that tells stories that have not been told before,
Erik Parker: Working with Swirl feels like a family. As a production company, that often tells stories about black experiences and largely for a black audience, SWIRL makes it a mission to provide opportunities for black people to work and thrive. That’s important for me as a black filmmaker as well.

 

CLR: What are simple but effective ways that state-by-state U.S. cannabis brands can promote diversity in employment and create an inclusive atmosphere?

Erik Parker: As a filmmaker, I have a point of view. In SMOKE, we talk to the experts and the people who have been working on this issue of diversity on multiple levels. People like Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who oversaw a legislative push for marijuana legalization in the state that included social equity programs.
Illinois built in safeguards into their legislation that included expungements and decriminalization and opportunities for ownership in the black and brown communities. There are a lot of different ways social equity is being addressed and it’s still very much an ongoing exploration.
But we have to have these conversations and look it from different viewpoints to try and get it right as legalization happens around us.

 

CLR: Talk to me a little about the value of equality, diversity, and inclusiveness when it comes to the Cannabis industry. Where specifically is it lacking?

Erik Parker: It’s important to open up these conversations about equity before we start conversations about legalization. Mostly because any legislation, any law, will have effects that we don’t always foresee.
America has a history of excluding blacks from the levers of power and wealth going back to redlining in real estate where blacks were denied loans for houses. And that’s just a prominent example of how blacks have been locked out of wealth.
We have to consider this issue as we move forward with legalization and commerce and criminal justice policies. Like “Freeway” Rick Ross tells us in the film, “This could be the greatest transfer of wealth since oil.”

CLR: How can we change it? What steps can we take now to keep it from happening —and continuing to happen in the future?

Erik Parker: This is all about lobbying and education. It’s easy to say yes, let’s legalize marijuana.
Most people in America are for that. But we have to first say, what does that mean for all communities and what should come with legalization. So it’s an education movement and then lobbying effort.

 

CLR: What are the biggest challenges in Cannabis, in your opinion? What needs immediate attention? How do we collectively work together to normalize and de-stigmatize Cannabis for everyone?

Tony Strickland: I think education around cannabis is the biggest hurdle. Much of the nation is operating off old assumptions. And we also have to educate people on the policy implications when it comes to legalization.
That’s a heavy lift because people like to believe they have an idea of what marijuana legalization means, which to many is more money from taxes and more jobs and more freedom to smoke.
Films like SMOKE and many others are part of a movement for more education and hopefully will encourage people to look at this issue from many different angles.

 

 

CLR: What keeps you awake at night?

Erik Parker: After my research and filming SMOKE, I mostly fear that legalization is moving throughout the US so fast that black communities will be adversely affected before anyone gets a handle on it. And then, you’re playing catch-up, which is where we are now in most places. Hopefully, SMOKE will help people start to look at this issue beyond the surface level.

CLR: What is the best advice you can offer individuals and companies in the space?

Erik Parker: We have a new administration in the federal government. I hope they will take a look at the federal policies and really listen to the growing chorus of people to reevaluate federal laws and classifications.

CLR: Right! Let’s go you know to my issue and you know I think that you’re, you’re really shining the light on the areas of the industry that are lacking significantly and in their proportionality. I just am amazed at some of the names, like Barbara Lee and Cory Booker I know what their opinions are. I did just read an article today about Kamala Harris and Biden how you know investors might be of the opinion that you know incoming Vice President might switch policy.

You mentioned policy earlier and I’m glad that you touch not only on the policy part, but also on the real life aspect I think that’s the beauty of having this as a documentary is that you have the opportunity to really shine a light into the window of someone’s life in a way that that hasn’t hasn’t been seen, and I think, as a director or showrunner for this…

How did you you know go about, you know, making sure that that you stayed on on the track of the story that you wanted to tell?

Erik Parker: All our documentaries, because we’ve covered so much ground in this question that really was a challenge, trying to stay on track was really difficult. Not being on track, or narrowing down our stories, was difficult because there’s so much out there that we want to tell each one of our acts could have been an entire documentary.
I mean, you’re talking about sports, you’re talking about marijuana marijuana in the criminal justice system —each one of those things are required, with no further examination. And what we, what we realize we have to “sell” all of this.
But we have to tell the story where we are now and where we’re going. I mean I think what I was trying to do directly with the picture: that it had an emotional connection to humans in the world, in the world.
And that was really important for this, because he didn’t just want to expose particular people and dispel legislation that people are making accustomed to connected to people. I think we were trying to.
I was really trying to tell a cohesive story. And we have an injustice in this country and policy disparities and through those stories, actually changed this idea. To give an idea and gain the information to people to do that through actual living, boots on the ground, so to speak.

 

NAS at press announcement of ‘Smoke’ documentary

 

CLR: In a very practical manner, people can take that and then apply it to their lives immediately. There’s no need for filter.

Tony Strickland: It’s about family. Their father, their brother is going to be coming up in jail. Because of this term “marijuana” and the unfair laws surrounding it.
And because we talk to people who were affected the family, people who were affected by “premium-ization,” and then we will talk to, you know, Al Harrison and Cheyenne, an NBA player who jumped at the career. And you talk to people like that who actually in their real life. You know, we look at it from different angles from a really human perspective.

 

CLR: I think by, you know, by the stories of the people as you just said who have a real, actual relationship with marijuana, because of the way it has affected their lives, but it’s such a bigger issue and and just her being able to change the policy and having those tears in her eyes does go to show that we can change this… I mean collectively like, what do we need to be doing collectively to start making this change happen?

 

Tony Strickland: I think they would tell us that we probably have to get involved. And make sure we pressure the politicians and policymakers to make sure their equity a  priority.
I think the people will work really close to it. The people are what we’re all about… to make our job is to was to make sure that we made people aware of what Erik wanted to present.

 

CLR: Yeah and I actually think I’m gonna use that for my title of the “fight for whed equality,” because I do feel that it is the most uneven market that I’ve ever seen happening and you just can’t even fathom it sometimes. Just to be able to know that there are others out there who are in other positions who have more to lose  —who have lost more, and that they are trying to take, you know make steps and make change happen and I think that’s encouraging right now for your viewers and for the audience.

I think that’s a really good step forward towards like collectively, trying to normalize it so we can have a conversation and conversations about it. And I think that it is problematic, at best.

CLR: I guess I would ask then, you know what REALLY keeps you guys awake at night, I mean you’ve got your story told you’re it hasn’t come out yet but will on the November 18, 2020. Very loaded question, so you can give me simple or complex it’s totally your choice.

 

 

Erik Parker: When it comes to keep it in context of marijuana reform, or legalization. Most important, you know. My fear is that people will not realize when they’re being duped or when they’re being lied to, like, to win when there are forces at work when there’s big money and big forces at work in government to government that are looking for marijuana prisons, private prisons are people making profit on bodies in jail rotting people up behind jail, without education without not paying close attention to legalization but how legalization is gonna happen in the United States.
At some point, it’s not a question if, but one of when that’s going to happen, but if we don’t pay attention to how that happens, and how it rolls out everywhere.
You know, it’s easy to be locked into “great, now I could smoke marijuana or take my product, and be left alone,” and not realize the implications and collectively all of us.
Basically, all of us Americans who are mostly on the same page. The majority of Americans are great when it comes to make sure that we’re educated and know that it’s not just about getting your home to university or recreational so much more behind the legalization happened, become collectively aware that there’s more to it and everything is.
Tony Strickland: Mine is a little bit shorter than Eric’s, but he hit it on the head with just, I think, for me: educating just the education part.
Outside of the dark, outside of the story with prohibition, making sure that, well, for me, I have three children.
I know Eric as children and he’s a father just educating our kids, you know, and making sure that you know what is being without in social media land or what’s on the news is real and it’s not reality right and so how do I, you know, bad or move forward with, you know, a 19, six, and a three year old and making sure that their conversation goes that are happening right about what’s going on in the world what’s going on and the under reserve community in this country that we live in, and more importantly, how you know policy.
And how what they do affects my two boys as, you know, as I’m raising and then growing up right and so it’s really that education part is at the table and having real dinners and, you know, try not to be passed through, you know, parent and too busy, but kind of getting back to, like, really, strategizing in the hole and making sure that that when they leave that they really understand what’s really going on.
So, first of all, is that he or she hitting on the head with education is key knowledge reading is everything. And I think that for me just trying to institutionalize that in the best way to proceed with raising my children.

CLR: I would agree 100%. As a human society, we have become so conditioned to think a certain way and I will say I think you’re both.

In listening to your answers, you’re both leading by example. I mean, you’re telling the stories that aren’t being told, you’re showing the angle that’s not being shown.

And I think that it comes off in your personal life as well, that it’s not just a professional thing. That’s something that you both sound as if you’re trying to live the marijuana message actively, because it is that important, this is a life or death situation.

I mean, for me alone, I have come down from 25 medications, including opiates, to six. All because of cannabis.

Erik and Tony, in unison:  Wow. Really, wow.

CLR: I am 100% about that this is a plant, it’s for everybody, and everybody needs to be a part of it if we’re going to do it right, I can’t I could not agree more with what you said so. Thank you for saying that.

It is a pleasure to meet you both. Thank you for telling the stories keep doing it!