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‘Grass Is Greener’: Fab 5 Freddy Tackles Pot’s Racist History in New Netflix Doc

New film tracks the history of cannabis policy in the U.S. alongside crucial developments in black American music from jazz to hip-hop, arguing that the push to make the plant illegal was inextricably tied to racism

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 05: Fab Five Freddy attends Night 2 at Prada Mode Miami at Freehand Miami on December 5, 2018 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Prada)

Fab Five Freddy's latest project, 'Grass Is Greener,' presents the racist origins of the War on Drugs.

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Fab 5 Freddy has always been impressively mutable, succeeding not only as an actor and director, but also as a rapper and graffiti artist.

With the new Netflix documentary Grass Is Greener, he takes an emphatic step into advocacy. The film tracks the history of cannabis policy in the U.S. alongside crucial developments in black American music from jazz — when singers used terms like “reefer” to secretly refer to pot— to hip-hop, arguing that the push to make the plant illegal was inextricably tied to racism. Grass Is Greener is particularly effective when it reaches the present and examines the racial disparities in the burgeoning legal weed industry: In the cruelest of turnarounds, the majority of criminal convictions for cannabis use were handed down to non-whites over the last half century, but now most of the money from legal weed is going to white-owned businesses.

Fab 5 Freddy spoke with Rolling Stone about his personal connection with cannabis, playing Grass Is Greener for New York state legislators, and steps that can be taken to make the legal weed industry more equitable.

What was your first exposure to weed?
As a kid, I grew up in a household where it was part of what my dad and his friends did, so I was exposed early on. Early on, I also learned about the jazz “reefer” songs, which fascinated me. My dad and all his friends laughed when I came like, “Yo, what’s this all about?” They laughed, because when they were kids they went up to Harlem and bought joints from Mezz Mezzrow [a Jewish jazz musician who was famous for selling pot, among other things.]

My dad was open-minded, kind of a counterculture guy. So as a young kid in the Seventies, I was aware that the movement to legalize had begun. We would hang out in Washington Square Park, when it was a hotspot for the counterculture. 

When did you link policies around cannabis use to musical movements?
The narrative formed in my head: From jazz and the beginnings of American music, particularly New Orleans, to when black folks migrated north to cities like New York and Chicago, and use and awareness [of weed] grew. These records spread the word. You can imagine being at some cool party and you put a nickel in the jukebox and you’re playing Cab Calloway’s “The Reefer Man” or “You’re a Viper” by Fats Waller. You were getting the message that this is the cool thing to do. And as blacks and whites came together, particularly whites came up to Harlem to experience this cultural revolution, that started to attract the ire of racists that didn’t want to see what was going on, and then reefer madness nonsense to scare the hell out of people. They were able to convince people of influence to criminalize this plant and disproportionately target people of color, particularly the musicians back then. That’s a big part of the saga of the plant in America.

At what point did you decide you want to become an advocate for legalization?
Around two years ago, I was talking to a good friend, an African American buddy that lives in California but had been in the underground market for a while and got arrested a few times. As a result of that, the way the laws are structured, if you have a conviction for cannabis, you’re not allowed to participate. That was the powers that be shutting out those primarily folks of color that had pioneered the business. He started a consultancy company called 40 Acres and a Greenhouse, and that was very clearly a reference to when black folks after the Civil War were promised 40 acres and a mule. He’s now in Africa overseeing a grow, last I heard from him.

But his story sparked me realizing: Black folks have been the most victimized, but also the first and loudest activists from then until now. When I hosted Yo! MTV Raps, Snoop, Cypress Hill, Red Man were all introduced by me. So I thought, what an interesting way to tell this story, counter-culture, music and then the criminal justice component, which also became a stronger part of the narrative once I began to get more info about how insanely draconian what is going on throughout many states in the south is. Particularly Bernard Noble, an African American man from New Orleans who was given 14 years for possessing two joints — five dollars worth of cannabis. This issue was more severe than I was even aware of. As [Drug Policy Alliance Senior Director] Asha Bandele in my film says, they could no longer write race into the law, so they began to write drugs into the law. New Orleans is one of the places where those racist drug laws are heavily burdening folks of color.

One of the striking things in your film is that there are two separate government studies — the LaGuardia Report in the 1940s, and the Shafer Commission in the 1970s — showing that there were few adverse effects to weed, but both are ignored. You make the case that going after weed anyway was a way for the government to crush dissent in the black community and in white progressive groups.
Clearly. I was even more surprised when we went to D.C. and got access to the recordings from Nixon’s White House and you hear him blame it on the Jews. It’s interesting when you think of someone like Allen Ginsberg, who took it mainstream — he actually went on a TV show and advocated for marijuana to be legalized. That really put it in the mainstream discourse. And of course, he’s Jewish. So when you hear Nixon talking about, what’s the matter with the Jews, it reminds me of the fact that Jews essentially had not been really considered white. That only happened over the last 60 or 70 years or so. They were arm and arm in the Civil Rights struggles and the counterculture. To hear Nixon go, what’s wrong with the Jews, it’s so, actually, racist.

In the movie you argue that one of the important functions of rap was to serve as counter-programming to the government propaganda around weed?
That’s 100% accurate. In the spirit of what a lot of counter-culture folks did, hip-hop artists picked up that baton. Cypress Hill were like, we could have been just a stoner group. The inspiration for what they did was to be like Cheech & Chong meets Run-DMC. But when they read Jack Herer’ book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, [a volume about the history of pot and its prohibition that includes a chapter titled “Prejudice: Marijuana and the Jim Crow Laws”] and they first learned about the LaGuardia report, the Shafer report, the targeting of musicians, they realized ah, look what the government’s been hiding. So they decided to be advocates.

Ironically they just got their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now I think Saturday Night Live should put Cypress Hill back on that show. [They were banned after lighting up on stage in 1993.] Especially as New York is in the midst of working out a bill that, hopefully, will provide not just legalization, but some social justice for people of color that have been disproportionately criminalized to get a seat at the table so when those billions are being made, a slice is going in that direction.

You actually played this film for some New York state legislators?
I met [New York Assemblywoman] Crystal Peoples-Stokes, and she came to my home with the representative from Harlem, Al Taylor, and they sat with Branson. Branson is one of the local Harlem weed legends that I showcase in the film — over 70 rap records shouted him out in the Nineties. [When Crystal and Al watched the movie], both were in tears; I had to run and get tissues.

The next thing I know, she’s calling me trying to arrange for me to come up to Albany, which I gladly did. I screened the film for about 40 members from across the state, and they were clamoring for me to do screenings in their districts. Particularly for people of color, who have been most victimized, all the folks have stories of relatives or offspring getting caught up in the system. They’re completely terrorized. They don’t understand yet that this plant is relatively harmless and can be beneficial. No one has died from marijuana usage on record — alcohol and cigarettes are killing people daily.

[The Drug Policy Alliance’s New York State Director] Kassandra Frederique, who’s featured in my film, is in Albany all the time doing the work to help get this bill passed so that things can be made right in the state of New York. More than 80% of cannabis arrests are still black or brown folks, but people of different races smoke cannabis at the same rate. That’s sad and shocking. So now I’m connecting [politicians] with Netflix, they’re saying that they’re ready to help get this film to people so they have a clearer picture of this history, which is rarely explained in this way. The film can have a social impact.

Another thing I realized is, these countries that criminalized cannabis were often following the American lead, but I don’t think they all knew that the main reasons were racism. I hope this film shows people around the world why America criminalized cannabis. And Harry Anslinger [a prominent critic of weed, and the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics] had an influence in the latter years of his life with the United Nations and his war on drugs.

There’s a scene in the film where you ask someone at a cannabis convention about the racial imbalance in the industry, and he says something about how black people with prior non-violent cannabis convictions would be “bad businessmen” — is that feeling prevalent?
That’s the attitude that a lot of people have now who are kind of Johnny-come-lately’s in the cannabis business. The guys who pioneered this, developed the strains, did a lot of research on this plant, often times ran into the law. Now they are being shut out. And the majority of times, these are people of color. The idea is not to come at people like that. But if you give them enough rope, you know what happens.

Regardless of that guy, there are examples of states and cities that are trying to do the right thing — from what I understand, in San Francisco, in Massachusetts, there are initiatives to help fix the wrongs that have been done for nearly 100 years. There’s gonna be people that don’t get it. Hopefully the film educates them and makes them re-think their approach on this — they need to see the concerted effort to criminalize black people and people who spoke up against that.

So you are seeing some states or cities have conversations about implementing legislation to fix the disparity within the industry?
The people who I met with in New York state have been on this for a while. Cuomo has just come around, seemingly pushed by Cynthia Nixon. Her line when campaigning was the correct line: People of color have been victimized disproportionately for decades in New York and that needs to be fixed. Cuomo was not with that. But to counter that, he started adopting her line, and now says he’s in favor of legalizing. The black and brown legislators are like, Ok, cool, but this is what the bill needs to address: You’re not gonna just make these billions and not set aside some money for the communities and the people most victimized.

As Kassandra with the Drug Policy Alliance lays out succinctly, people who live in public housing can lose their homes, they can be deported, their kids can be taken away from them over cannabis. This is happening. This has happened. People are not aware of it. Now politicians are calling me — I say call Kassandra. The Drug Policy Alliance has been on the front lines. Get with some of the people who’ve been fighting the fight. Along with the legalizing, they want to legalize in the right way, so it’s not just some cornball capitalist that had nothing to do with the plant getting the biggest piece of the pie. It’s ok to get in the game. But let’s remember those who did the work, who laid the foundation. They should be able to ride the train — they put the tracks in the ground.

Have any of the states that have legalized weed before New York taken steps towards a more equal weed industry?
The interesting thing you’ll find is many of the states that have legalized don’t have large populations of color. Now you have New Jersey — they just punted on the vote, because they couldn’t convince all these guys to do things like expunging records. They’re still stuck with bad information, with miseducation. In New York, who knows what’s going to happen. But I know that the members of color are united around getting social justice and equity [into the bill]. Like Kassandra said, we need a comprehensive fix that’s on par with the devastation that’s been wreaked on people.

Are there specific components to a comprehensive bill that you would like to see?
To expunge non-violent cannabis arrests. Let’s start there. You’ve got this thing that hasn’t killed anybody, people are in jail for it; they need to be free. And you need to make sure that an effort is made to let people of color participate in the business. One thing pointed out in the film is, you need to have an incredible amount of cash to get in. One of the women in the movie says that people in urban areas may not have $200,000 in liquid cash. You gotta be rich to have that to be able to put up for a business. Why would you make that number so high? Let’s lower the bar so that people can participate. Let’s get some equity going.

Killer Mike had an interesting suggestion about legislating to make sure that a certain percentage of cannabis-business owners are not white.
That’s a reflection of who was vilified the most for the longest. That’s the reality. That would be great — that’s a fair deal. Let’s work to have a fair and equitable deal. I’m glad Killer Mike said what he said, and we structured it to follow a comment from Kassandra about reparations. That’s something Cynthia Nixon had said following Kassandra as well. Cynthia got taken to the cleaners for saying reparations. But words have expanding meanings. Listen, after World War II there was something called the Marshall Plan, and Germany was rebuilt. Let’s figure out some way to fix these things, and then move on.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

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