To the Root of the Matter: Four Black cannabis gardeners reflect on their journeys into cultivation

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De’Janae Evins’ childhood was not filled with gardens. “It was gang territory,” she says of her ’90s upbringing in South Central Los Angeles. Her mom kept Evins and her sibling within a two-block radius of the house for as many years as she could, hoping to preserve their innocence. It worked. So well, in fact, that Evins thought the earthy aroma wafting from her dad was his cologne, not the weed he dealt to help put food on the table for his family.

Though Zev Nicholson had much more cultivation exposure growing up in Minneapolis—his parents were big-time gardeners—he could have happily done without. “I absolutely hated working out there,” he recalls. There was another “garden” in the basement—weed grown under lights. He wasn’t supposed to know about that one, but he did. And he knew that, despite his dad’s full-time job and his mother’s disability benefits, he’d go without birthday presents if it wasn’t for the weed money. 

Today, both are among a growing number of Black cannabis gardeners aiming to sort out their relationship to the plant. Legalization has done little to fix the deep racism in the cannabis industry. For one thing, it’s hard to even talk about legality when 44,000 people—the majority Black and Brown—remain behind bars on cannabis charges. Meanwhile, the legal industry forges ahead, poised to employ 630,000 Americans and generate around $40 billion in annual revenue by 2025. Within that legal market, nearly 96% of businesses are owned by white men. 

Neither Evins nor Nicholson took an interest in the plant until college. For Evins, the documentaries she’d seen at the YMCA were enough to spook her. In Nicholson’s case, he’d had a handful of cousins and a smattering of friends sent to prison for possession. “It wasn’t the plant I was scared of; it was how it was used against us,” he says. Indeed, it was the height of the war on drugs, a collection of policies that led to the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses to increase from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997, with Black people nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people—a statistic that holds true today.

During college Evins was ready to experiment. Back then she discovered that cannabis had a positive impact on her mental health—a realm of life she wasn’t taught to explore. “Where I’m from, we focused on going to work from nine to five and making enough money to keep the lights on. We needed a running car, food in the fridge, and food stamps,” she says. “There was no room for mental health. We didn’t have the luxury to think about that.”

She was so into the plant that, with the pendulum swing of legalization, she decided to carve a place out for herself in the industry back home in L.A. It’s not been easy. First, she launched Green Goddess Glow, trying her hand at “a YouTube beauty blogger approach to cannabis,” she says, reviewing products. After working at a dispensary, she started a tour company, offering participants dispensary trips alongside hikes, meditation, and yoga. It worked for a while, but the overhead was high, as was the insurance, and her business partnership fizzled. She’s refocused Green Goddess Glow several times, using the website to celebrate the intersection of wellness and cannabis, through newsletters, photos, and articles. “It could be about putting on a mask and smoking a blunt or using topicals with CBD,” she says. “It’s basically about what I like to do when I’m smoking weed and that happens to all fall under the realm of self-care.” Featuring Black women is the most important part. “I hadn’t seen myself represented in this space,” she says. 

While rectifying the inequality within the cannabis industry will take nothing short of criminal record expungement and increased equity to startup capital, visibility matters, too. 

“In sports, you hear quotes like, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’” says Ernest Toney, founder of BIPOCANN, an organization that aims to make the legal cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC communities. He points to Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters. “You need to see people look and relate to you in places of success and influence,” he says. 

With cannabis, that can be a tough order. Used as a tool of oppression, arrests for possession remain four times higher for Black people than white people, despite similar usage rates. “The War on Drugs and systemic policing of this plant have destroyed lives in many Black communities,” Toney says. “That probably creates some skepticism about being part of the legal industry.”

Jamal (who wishes to be identified by his first name only), a Bay Area native who’s been growing since the early 2000s, would have loved to go legal. “Legalization completely stratified the market into tiny homegrows and big corporate ones,” he says. Jamal counted himself among the ranks of mid-sized growers who didn’t have the capital—at least a million dollars—for permits and taxes. He worked at an iconic hydroponic supply shop, Berkeley Indoor Garden, at the time cannabis went legal. “There was definitely a feeling of resentment when people would come in saying that business must be booming,” he says. “It sucked to have people for whom this wasn’t their livelihood assuming that since things were better for them, they were better for everyone.”

Jamal found an upside, though. As the price of cannabis plummeted, he focused less on growing flowers to sell and more on breeding—his true passion. He grows outdoors now, freed from massive electric bills and the financial pressure. He started a seed collective in 2018. With a group of growers, he’s aiming to produce and preserve a seed library of rare, landrace cannabis cultivars. And ultimately, turning toward his passion might prove profitable, too, as he plans to launch his own seed company, Aili Seeds, which will focus on genetics grown from that collective. 

For all the inequity, legalization has opened up channels of communication. Nicholson—resentful of his parents’ secrecy around their own cultivation—finds himself healing his childhood traumas by growing outdoors in his Portland, OR, garden and talking openly with his two kids about the plant he now considers to be medicine. By growing his own, he feels he’s reclaiming knowledge that was stripped from Black people, and the act makes him feel like a more liberated Black person. He also no longer loathes garden work. “Weed made me love plants,” he says. He grows alongside a robust veggie garden.

Legalization has drawn in new growers, too. Take Calvin Walker, who hadn’t touched cannabis since his college days in the 1970s. Turning his attention to his career, he didn’t think about cannabis again until 2018 when recreational use became legal in California. Completely uninterested in smoking, he purchased a tincture on a whim from a dispensary to see if it might help with his arthritis pain. Sure enough, he found relief from stiff, sore joints. “I liked everything about it except the cost,” he says. “So, I decided I’d figure out how to grow it myself.”

His approach to weed gardening matches his career in programming. He’s disciplined, methodical, and takes meticulous records. He tests his harvest for cannabinoid and terpene makeup at a local lab. His finished crop becomes cannabutter, cannasugar (sweetening everything from oatmeal to simple syrup), tinctures, and topicals. Concerned about ash and toxins from this year’s fires, he’s testinga three-part washing technique, dipping buds into a hydrogen peroxide/water bath, followed by a lemon juice-baking soda/water bath, and finally a clear water rinse. A few plants yield far more than he needs, and he shares the bounty with friends undergoing chemotherapy. 

While he shares vegetable gardening with this wife, the cannabis garden is all his (“though she helps with the consumption,” he says). “Thank God for the internet,” Walker says, as it’s where he’s learned how to grow. That is, until recently, when one of his daughters revealed she’d been attending classes at Oaksterdam University, learning how to cultivate. “It’s really nice to have someone to share this with,” he says. 

He thinks often about the opportunities that exist in the market. His family still owns 40 acres in rural Arkansas—the birthplace of his parents (Walker was born in Little Rock, and his parents relocated to Berkeley in 1959 to escape segregated schools). He thinks hemp farming could be quite lucrative for his daughter, but getting her to move to rural Arkansas is, thus far, out of the question. 

Land has also been on Evins’ mind. “Black people’s relationship to cannabis predates the War on Drugs,” she says. “We were the ones cultivating hemp for the colonists, and yet we own less than 2% of the farmland in this country. Even cannabis brands belonging to people of color aren’t from weed grown by people of color.”

When she started working as a brand educator for Aster Farms, a sustainable cannabis farm in Lake County, CA, she took her first trip to the farm. Surrounded by giant cannabis plants, Evins thought more about her relationship to cultivation. 

And that’s when it hit her that she had to grow her own. So, in the backyard of the house that’s been in her family for three generations—the one she kept so close to for all of her childhood—she got to growing. It hasn’t been easy, battling gophers and caterpillars, and overwatering. But she’s persevered and even started growing other fruits and vegetables. “I like being barefoot in the grass, listening to Florence and the Machine, picking lemons off the tree.”

Her current full-time job is working as a brand manager for Viola, the largest Black-owned multi-state operator, but she hasn’t given up the dream of her very own business. Her next vision involves using the house to create a cannabis content hub for the community, complete with photo studio, acupuncture and yoga classes, raw cacao workshops, gardening classes, and more. “No more driving a bus through the trendy part of town,” she says. “I want to  stay close to home and serve the people who need to be served.”

Johanna Silver