© Papa & Barkley

Guy Rocourt, co-founder and CEO of Papa & Barkley.

When I think of Black History Month, I think of looking to our past to inform our future. We need to know our history in order to learn from it and not make the same mistakes. In fact, our mistakes of the past can become blessings for our future, but only if we are courageous enough to face them, learn from them, understand them, and ultimately grow from them.

As a black American who has dedicated the last 20 years of my life to fighting cannabis prohibition, I have lived the realities of our history on both the race front and the cannabis legalization front, and I believe both have a great deal to teach us. Unfortunately, we continue to ignore it and or deny it. This is true of both the black American experience and of cannabis probation in this nation.

My personal story started in Bronx, N.Y., circa November 1971. My parents emigrated from Haiti to the U.S. in the mid 60’s. This, at times, made me both “African American” and also “a foreigner.” While not often discussed, Caribbean Americans grow up with a very different culture than African American culture. Consequently, I didn’t fit in the “African American” box either.

Growing up, I remember feeling like a minority many times over. This feeling pushed me to grab on to the only thing I was taught was available to every American—the American Dream. I truly believed that as long as we were willing to work for it, the right for each and every American to pursue life, liberty, and happiness in a fair and equitable way was possible. I was very pro-American in my youth. The strong images of our “cowboy” President Ronald Regan and movies like Top Gun convinced me that joining the military was a sure way to earn my place in the American Dream. I was ready to “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” serve the nation, and reap the rewards of capitalism.

Being born in New York City, however, did not prepare me for my military experience. NYC is a true melting pot of world cultures and, even back in the 80’s, I believed the United States to be a very diverse country. My first day in boot camp showed me how ignorant my big city life had left me. The facts were that most of the guys in my boot camp class were white and from the Midwest, and most of them had never met a person of color. My first roommate after boot camp had gone to a segregated high school–and this was 1987. My worldview certainly took a hit, but I was still gung-ho on the American Dream. The military came through for me in my pursuit. I received an ROTC scholarship and was able to go to college.

Like many college students, I was introduced to the magic of cannabis and the teachings of Jack Herer. I came to understand that the cannabis plant has so much to offer the world beyond just its psychoactive, mind-expanding potential. The possibility of clothing, food materials, and biodiesel were obvious resources we needed to turn the tide in our push toward sustainability and the reduction of our carbon footprint. The shocking bias toward cannabis in the face of the overwhelming evidence of its potential to help the world reminded me of the irrational, systemic racial bias which holds back people of color across the U.S.

I often say that cannabis advocacy is the most patriotic thing I have ever done–even more so than my military service. Our right to use our voice collectively is a cornerstone of the American Dream. My fight for cannabis reform is part of my larger fight to make true a dream that all people can pursue in a fair and equitable way. They are the same fight.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we must continue that shared fight on behalf of all people of color. The same lies and mistruths used to foment fear against people of color are used against cannabis. It has been 30 years since I was enlisted in the U.S. Navy. I wish I could say that the last 30 years have been a success on either front. The harsh reality is that racism and fascism seem to be on the rise at home and around the globe, and cannabis is still federally illegal in spite of it many life- and world-changing benefits. As a patriot, I am being tested. Our nation still wrestles with being honest about our “Black History” and the abject failure of the war on drugs. For as long as we continue to deny past mistakes, we will continue to impede our progress forward.

Guy Rocourt is co-founder and CEO of Papa & Barkley and a Cannabis Conference advisory board member.