Friday, May 12, 2023

Q&A with Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Tahira Rehmatullah


Akwasi Owusu-Bempah



Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Tahira Rehmatullah are the authors of the new book Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice. Owusu-Bempah is a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto. Rehmatullah is a partner at Highlands Venture Partners. 


Q: What inspired you to write Waiting to Inhale?


A: As the authors of Waiting to Inhale, we were inspired to write this book because we believe that the current state of cannabis policy in the US, Canada, and worldwide is deeply flawed and in need of significant reform. For too long, cannabis has been demonized and criminalized, with devastating consequences for individuals and communities, particularly those historically marginalized and oppressed.


At the same time, we also recognize that the cannabis industry has the potential to be a force for positive social change, creating jobs, generating revenue, and promoting health and wellness. However, to realize this potential, we need to ensure that cannabis policies are grounded in principles of equity, justice, and inclusion rather than continuing the harms of past prohibition and discrimination.

Tahira Rehmatullah

By writing Waiting to Inhale, we hope to contribute to a larger conversation about cannabis policy and social justice, drawing on our own experiences and expertise to offer a critical and nuanced perspective on this complex and multifaceted issue. Our goal is to inspire readers to think deeply about the harms of past prohibition and the possibilities of a more just and sustainable future, and to advocate for policies that prioritize the needs of communities most impacted by cannabis criminalization.


Q: Forbes magazine said of the book, “Through unflinching honesty and searing insight, Waiting to Inhale serves as both a powerful indictment of past injustices and a hopeful vision for a more equitable future.” What do you think of that description?


A: We love it! This is what we hoped to achieve – sharing a well-researched view of the past and insight into what we can and should do to move forward. We don’t have a clear blueprint of reparations or social equity yet. Still, it takes a village, and the more people understand what is happening, the more we can do together to move beyond the racist past of cannabis and other drug prohibition.


Throughout the book, we provide critiques of the ways in which cannabis prohibition has historically been used as a tool for social and racial control and make a case for the need to address these injustices through policy reform.


At the same time, however, we also offer a hopeful vision for a more equitable future, one in which cannabis legalization can promote social justice and economic opportunity for marginalized communities. We argue that by creating policies that prioritize equity and inclusion, we can begin to address the harms of past prohibition and create a more just and sustainable cannabis industry.


By combining rigorous research with personal stories and insights, we hoped to offer a powerful and nuanced perspective on a complex and multifaceted issue and make a compelling case for the need to approach cannabis policy with a commitment to equity, justice, and compassion.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: We both came into the book with foundational knowledge of how the War on Drugs came to be and how policies have negatively impacted minority communities.


In particular, Akwasi’s research has focused on the intersection of race, crime, and criminal justice reform. Tahira’s work with the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform, has given insight into how the system has failed so many currently incarcerated people, often for crimes that are no longer crimes.


We also dug deeper into historical records and interviews of those who were part of creating and enforcing various drug laws in the US and Canada. Beyond that, we conducted a range of interviews with entrepreneurs, formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, and organizations fighting for social equity.


The most surprising learnings weren’t really learnings but rather the humanization of stories that we’ve known at a more anonymized level. Hearing directly from people who have been serving or served unjust prison sentences that completely disrupted and derailed their lives was crushing from an emotional perspective and motivating from a justice perspective. If anything, the personification of the stats further fuels our fire to fight the fight needed to bring justice to the cannabis industry and beyond.


Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to cannabis policy?


A: We can anticipate a few key trends and possibilities regarding cannabis policy.


Firstly, we may see continued shifts toward decriminalization and legalization of cannabis at the state level in the United States and other countries worldwide. This trend has already been underway for some time, with a growing number of states legalizing cannabis for medical and/or recreational use. It is likely to continue as public opinion on cannabis shifts and policymakers respond to legalization's economic and social benefits.


However, as we highlight in our book, there are also a number of challenges and obstacles that may arise as cannabis policy continues to evolve. For example, issues related to equity and access should become increasingly important, particularly as the cannabis industry becomes more commercialized and corporate. There may also be ongoing debates and conflicts around issues such as taxation, regulation, and public health and safety.


Overall, the future of cannabis policy is likely to be complex and multifaceted, with a range of different actors and interests involved. However, by paying attention to the insights and perspectives offered by experts across verticals that operate in the industry, we can hopefully navigate these challenges and work towards policies that are fair, effective, and grounded in evidence-based research.


Q: What are you working on now?


Tahira: I’m continuing my work with the Last Prisoner Project as a board member and Highlands Venture Partners as both an investor and advisor to companies and entrepreneurs. As the New York cannabis market comes to fruition, I’ve been more engaged with local efforts to course-correct what is happening as policy rolls out and develop brands in the market. Beyond that, I’ve started to dive deeper into psychedelics research, policy, and potential for therapeutic advancements.


Akwasi: I continue to research inequities in drug laws. There is still much work to be done with respect to cannabis, especially as legalization continues to unfold. Like Tahira, I’m also looking at the legalization of other drugs, especially psilocybin and other psychedelics. When I’m not doing research, I also advise governments and industry on these and other equity-related issues.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: We certainly believe that drug policy reform will not (and should not) end with cannabis. Paying attention to the broader discussions is important and we hope that the lessons learned from cannabis can help inform the legalization of other substances.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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