Ganjier Student Profile – Survivor to Sommelier to Ganjier: The Paths of Rafael & Brandon

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Surviving the War on Drugs: The 1990’s

The War on Drugs was officially declared by Richard Nixon at the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. However, George Bush, Sr. was credited with a military style escalation that would eventually make the United States’ prison population the largest per capita in the world. Given that cannabis is the most commonly used illicit substance, a great deal of the enforcement was focused there. And, because the drug war was designed to imprison and disempower people of color, the 1990’s saw an immense amount of legally justified racial profiling, such as New York’s famous “Stop and Frisk” law which enabled law enforcement to stop a citizen for no reason and ask them to turn out their pockets. Surprising to no one, these laws mostly impacted people of color. 

Ganjier students Rafael and Brandon spoke with me about their experiences with the 1990’s style War on Drugs. 

Can you talk a little bit about the role/impact of the Drug War on your life?

Brandon:The drug war is the teeth in systematic racism & police brutality, which are two huge topics today. Yet rarely do you find anyone talking about ending the drug war to end those two topics by taking the teeth out of the system that has ruined countless lives, arguably even worse than the drugs themselves. I got in trouble with the law in the 90’s & when I did my time, I did it at Broward County jail.  I was sentenced to a year in jail, in the “Drug Cell”. The Drug Cell program was based off of AA & NA & it reduced my sentence from a year to four months. I did the AA/NA program from breakfast to 6 pm every day for those 4 months in that program…simply for smoking weed!! I was really released due to overcrowding, but the gain time from doing the drug cell program & helping other inmates get their GEDs also helped. Most of the guys in there had much harder drug addictions, like crack and heroin.  The harder drug users would tease us a lil bit for being in there for cannabis. My nickname in jail was College Boy, being I was young & I helped guys get their GEDs & they didn’t feel like I should be in there, but in some college. Truth is, it was not a healing environment for any addict really.”  

Rafael:The war on drugs had a direct impact on my life from the moment I went from a teenager to a legal adult.  I was eighteen years old, working as a waiter in a fine dining restaurant, living with roommates and just starting out being on my own. I was already an avid cannabis aficionado and would pick up primo buds in “QP’s or elbows” to save money and keep my closest friends with good smoke.  On the way home from procuring one evening, a law enforcement officer was waiting for my return in the sub-division where I lived. His reason for turning on his lights and pulling me over was not that I didn’t stop at the “Stop Sign”, but that my tires were over the white line when I had made my complete stop. He then said he smelled “Pot” coming from my vehicle and asked if he could search my car. Knowing my rights and the law, I respectfully stated I do not consent to a search of my vehicle and he would need to get himself a warrant. He smirked, and said “Well, I suspect you to be under the influence of marijuana. He told me to step out of the car to take a field sobriety test. I complied, but first, I turned off my vehicle, removed my keys from the ignition, stepped out, and locked the car via remote. After a series of playing “Simon Says” with Officer Mitchell, he informs me I failed, and he is going to place me under arrest. Still smiling, he says “Now, I’m going to take inventory of your car.” Immediately he cuffs me, frisks me, and takes my car keys, shoves me in the back of his squad car and begins his search. In a few minutes, he finds and pulls out a pound of cannabis, proudly like a trophy fish, and leans his head to his shoulder to radio in his catch. In less than a minute, an unmarked SUV pulls up with more sheriffs and they take me into custody. After a failed attempt at an interrogation, I lawyer up and get one-year of probation as a plea deal due to an illegal search. This one year turned into four years because of a violation of my probation. The Violation was not due to failed drug tests or committing other crimes, but for showing up 3 minutes late to a work detail at the county jail, a stipulation of my probation.  One pound of cannabis cost me over $22,000.00 and future opportunities.”

What messages did you receive about drugs, especially cannabis, growing up?

Brandon:Mixed messages for sure. At home, cannabis was accepted by my mom and dad, aunts and that generation. The older generations were against it originally but got won over by the younger generation. The best story to explain this, is my grandpa Frank (on my mom’s side) was going to kick my Aunt Pam out of his house for finding weed in her room. My Aunt Pam was from the hippie generation. My dad & my Grandpa Frank were actually pretty close. They worked together & raced cars on clay track together at the time. My dad was from the greaser generation, but he smoked weed at the time too. He just kept it from my Grandpa. When my Grandpa Frank told my dad he was going to kick his daughter out of the house over weed, he asked him, “Frank, before you kick your daughter out of the house, do you know what you’re kicking her out for, firsthand? Have you ever tried smoking it yourself? When he obviously replied no, my dad pulled out a joint and said before you kick your daughter out of the house over this, it’s not that big of a deal and you should know what you’re talking about before you make this mistake! My grandpa was shocked my dad smoked at first but respected my dad and he tried it & loved it! Being an avid home gardener, he even eventually started growing cultivars like Maui Wowie & Panama Red, back in the day. Needless to say, he never kicked my Aunt Pam out of the house! At school however…it was “just say no” and DARE all the way. I was aware of government propaganda from a very early age.” 

Rafael: The first message I received was at an early age and it was with my nose. I first remember that sweet, spicy, pungent aroma as a child circa 1980’s growing up in Long Island, NY. I would see my parents sitting around the dining room table with their friends, laughing, talking and “Rolling their own cigarettes” as one of my earliest memories of Cannabis.  During the Bush administration, the D.A.R.E. program was introduced in Florida, and my fifth-grade class was among the first to be indoctrinated. It was at this time I found out what was exactly in those “Hand-Rolled cigarettes”.  My mother sat me down and asked me what I knew about “Marijuana”, I told her what they told me in D.A.R.E., that it was a gateway drug and it made you dumb and hungry. She laughed and went to her room and came back with her stash bag and then, the real class was now in session. She showed me the two different kinds she had, explained that there were stems and seeds and that you don’t smoke those. She said there is a “Green” and a “Red”. The “green” is smooth and makes you creative and laugh and the red is spicy and makes you feel relaxed.  I remember looking and smelling them each and wondering what made them so different, but yet the same. This is where my passion for cannabis began. A direct effect of the war on drugs and the truth.”

What has been the biggest hurdle in overcoming your involvement with the criminal justice system?

Brandon: I feel POC have a much harder time being targeted by the criminal justice system. If we really wanted to end systematic racism and police brutality, the best way to do that, is to end the war on drugs. The war on drugs is the system that is used to target minorities and anti-war protesters or anti-big brother protesters, etc. The war on drugs is the teeth of both systematic racism and police brutality, to bypass our constitutional rights that protect the smallest minority, the individual. We just need to do better at protecting our individual liberties, rights and freedoms by including Native Americans & all POC.” 

Rafael: The scar from it. Once medicinal cannabis started to become legal around the united states, I made several attempts to work in the Cannabis industry. I was hired in Illinois to be a Cultivator at a medicinal cannabis facility. I went through the interview process, shared my experiences and knowledge that I had acquired over the years and was enthusiastically hired. Knowing that I did not have a felony conviction on my record, I submitted my fingerprints and background check to the state without reverence. I was then denied employment not for the cannabis charge, but for the Violation of probation. I was beyond devastated. I moved back home to Florida and again made the attempt to throw my hat in the Cannabis field once more, I was again hired into a position of cultivator with the leading medicinal cannabis firm in Florida and again denied due to a charge from over 20 years ago.” 

Why do you think cannabis legalization is important?

Brandon: I feel cannabis legalization is important to be in balance with our planet & with each other, especially ourselves, since it is quite literally an adaptogen that causes balance & homeostasis in our bodies.”

Rafael: I feel Cannabis legalization is important because it was made illegal under false pretenses in the first place. The benefits of Hemp & Cannabis to humanity have been documented throughout history. It’s only recently that prohibition has changed our long-term relationship with this miracle plant. We now see today that individual states have adopted medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis laws by the will of its people. It’s past time for us to set the tone federally and globally that Cannabis is beneficial in so many ways to the betterment and progress for a greener humanity.”

Do you think that your experiences will make you a better Ganjier? Why or why not?

Brandon: “Quite a bit…people love the stories as much as they love the information. When I was a Wine Sommelier, people would love the stories about the wines, the vineyards & any personal experiences with that wine that we could share, and those experiences are what really sold the wine a lot of times. I personally feel education is paramount.” 

Rafael: I do. I was a wine educator and sommelier for most of my paid career. I truly loved connecting with people and guiding them on their wine journey. I loved researching and finding outstanding, small production wine makers and unique varietals for my clients to learn about and experience.  As for the drug war, I appreciate the drive it’s given me to never give up on fighting for this plant. Nothing makes you want to get up more, than having a boot on your neck.”

The evolution of cannabis reform since the 1990’s has been astonishing. Today, nearly every state allows some form of cannabis use, and hemp (low-THC cannabis) is federally legal. However, the scars of the height of the drug war will be felt by many for years to come, whether they are still behind bars, or still paying the price via loss of opportunity, for their use of the cannabis plant.

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