‘Smoke & Mirrors’ Reclaims Cannabis

The founders of S.F.'s People's Dispensary have a new exhibit at the African American Art & Culture Complex that reveals the human collateral of the War on Drugs — and demands better.   

The inspiration for Melonie and Melorra Green’s new exhibition, “Smoke & Mirrors: The War on Drugs,” wasn’t hard to find. In a sense, it was literally all around them. Every time they saw a new billboard for a cannabis company or noticed a ribbon-cutting for another dispensary financed by venture capitalists, it reminded them that the injustices that Black and Brown people face as a result of the War on Drugs had quickly been forgotten — if they’d even been considered at all.

Born in Memphis, twins Melonie and Melorra serve as co-executive directors of the African American Art & Culture Complex in the Western Addition. They’re also co-founders of the forthcoming San Francisco location of the People’s Dispensary — a national, equity-focused effort to bring diversity to the industry.

In an effort to remedy the egregious reality that some folks are now planning IPOs around the very same thing that cost countless people of color their freedom — and, in some cases, their lives — the Green sisters have curated a remarkably timely and sobering examination of the imbalances in power in the cannabis industry. On display at the African American Art & Culture Complex through August, this exhibit is intended as a reminder that while pot may be regulated, that doesn’t mean it’s legal.

Well, technically speaking, it is permissible to consume and possess the plant here in California, but the distinction lies in parsing “legal” as an all-encompassing term. Yes, it may be legal for a white male software engineer to swing by a dispensary after his shift, but is it really legal for Black and Brown individuals when, according to the ACLU, Blacks continue to be 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana despite even usage rates for both ethnicities?

The work on display at “Smoke & Mirrors” places this disparity front and center, with art from the 1960s through today.

“We get to be in the same industry,” Melorra Green explains, “but we experience this industry differently, right? We get to stand around a coffin. White people get to stand around a boardroom. That’s the flip for doing the very same thing.”

Specifically, Green is referring to the work of Tracy Brown. Two of Brown’s photographs that document the funerals of Black homicide victims are included in the exhibit.

“I’ve documented a number of funerals,” Brown says. “I really pay attention to the fact that when we think about homicide, we just think about the person in the coffin. In actuality, the families and the communities are also greatly impacted.”

That impact is a central focus for the exhibit, which also looks at the ways mainstream cannabis culture has appropriated from minorities as it has gained in popularity. An installation from the Green sisters touches on the concept of Impostefari — referring to those who borrow liberally from the tenets of Rastafarianism without much thought to the fact that it is an actively practiced faith rooted in a sacred set of beliefs.

On July 18, Brown will participate in a panel on the subject of Imposterfari as part of a selection of educational programming running in tandem with the exhibit. Other offerings include an artist talk on May 23 and a health summit on June 15.

While many of the pieces in “Smoke & Mirrors” may rightfully evoke a sense of sorrow and shame, Melonie Green says that’s not all she wants visitors to take away.

“It can’t just be about how often you stand on a soapbox, talk about how jacked up it is in your community, and see who will throw you a few pennies,” she says. “I think when a lot of people think about cannabis in its brightest form, there’s a Black person or Brown person behind how that’s even expressed. We need a real dialogue around space and stepping back and making room and the idea that there’s enough for everyone. I think people need to put their money where their mouth is.”

To that end, “Smoke & Mirrors” also features a selection of infographics — impeccably designed posters that clearly explain how aspects of cannabis like terpenes and strains truly work. There is also a blackboard where those who attend the exhibit can share their cannabis questions.

In Brown’s estimation, all these extra efforts — the special panels, the educational components, the variety of artists carefully selected to contribute — speak to the fact that the exhibit’s true purpose extends beyond what’s on the walls.

“We don’t have the luxury of having a show full of white paintings with a dot in the corner,” she notes. “We as Black and Brown people have a responsibility to speak up, to make sure that our voices are heard, and also to make sure that we’re using the medium of the visual arts and arts in general in a way that has the most impact. There are things that art can teach that words and voices may not be able to on their own. When you add that creative energy to it — and we, as African people, are all about creativity — when you add that, it makes for a powerful teaching tool and a powerful tool for growth for everybody.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Melonie and Melorra Green are the co-founders of a forthcoming San Francisco location of The People’s Dispensary, not the current Oakland location.

Smoke & Mirrors: The War on Drugs, through Aug. 31, at the African American Art & Culture Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., aaacc.org

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