Co-hosts Nyge Turner and Dominique “Dom” French are finally talking weed! Racist drug arrests, weed’s effects on the growing brain, and the budding cannabusiness industry are all on the table in the Adult ISH Season 9 premiere! Guests include Mikelina Belaineh of the Last Prisoner Project, scientist Tyler Lesh, and entrepreneur-activist Amber Senter of Supernova Women.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Nyge: Welcome to Adult ISH, produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I'm Nyge Turner.
Dom: And I'm Dominique French.
Nyge: On this episode, we are finally following through on a long-time promise that we made to the listeners of this show. To talk about a little bit of a sensitive subject, maybe more of like a polarizing topic or… kind of a controversial one –
Dom: Oh, my God! We're talking about weed. [Laughter] Oh-Whew! I'm so glad I got that out. We are talking about weed. It's been four years. We, we said we were going to and now we are finally doing it.
Nyge: I was just trying to build a little bit of anticipation. But since you were so eager to get into it, Dom, what are your feelings about weed?
Dom: To be honest, Nyge, I'm really conflicted about it. I grew up seeing people of color incarcerated over tiny amounts of weed on them, and I heard my mom be so adamant that I, as a person of color, needed to stay away from it. So it's always represented this unequal treatment of Black and brown people in our country. It's always been surrounded by fear and sadness and worry from a very, very young age for me.
Nyge: Literally, my thoughts exactly. I also hear about health benefits and risks. So many on both sides that I'm left with way more questions than actual, like, set opinions on the subject.
Dom: Then let's get some of those questions answered. First, we're going to talk to Amber Senter, who specializes in advocacy, training, and networking surrounding weed. She's the CEO of MAKR House, a Black, queer, and vet-owned house of brands, and the founder, chair, and executive director of Supernova Women.
Nyge: What were people's reactions in your life when you first voiced that you wanted to work in this industry in 2013?
Amber Senter: People that know me weren't surprised. [laughter] My friends are definitely not surprised. Family members… some of them surprised. Definitely, obviously worried about the legalities around cannabis and just wanting to make sure that I was safe. I remember my sister had her sister-in-law over for the holidays, and her sister-in-law brought a friend and her friend called me a drug dealer and I was like, "Whoa, that's extreme," you know? So like, you know, I've had people call me a drug dealer. And of course, like I mentioned, family worried about me being in danger as far as like, the legalities. Like, "Hey, you're a Black person. You can't be selling weed out in the open like this." And, and things like that. Which, you know, I understand that concern and certainly appreciate it. Yeah, lots of kind mysteries around what exactly I do. So I had to debunk a lot of that.
Nyge: Yeah, I definitely identify with that. Like, I remember with like, you know, a lot of like cannabis news and things like that, like coming out and my dad watching the news with me and looking at me like, “Okay, now you don't do that though.” Like, this is different. It's a different set of rules for you, for sure. Which, I mean, you know, like you said, like, I get it. Like I get where that comes from, but definitely like I can identify with those conversations.
Amber Senter: Yeah, right. Because it's like, “Hey, you're Black, you're a Black person, you're a Black kid. You can't be doing that. You're going to go to jail first.” I used to hear that a lot, too.
Nyge: Have these conversations at all shifted in the last ten years?
Amber Senter: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Nyge: In what ways?
Amber Senter: My family now, has a better understanding of what I do. Like last year at this time, I was actually in Philadelphia with Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-12) talking to a bunch of Black congressional folks around, like, the challenges that Black small cannabis business owners face.
And now that my family sees that I do these kinds of things, like, I'm civically engaged. I run an actual business, we make cannabis products. I raise money. They see me in Forbes, they see me in all these things, you know? And now they're just like, “Oh!” You know, this is — their whole perspective. (Dom: ‘We didn’t know!’) Their whole perspective has really changed around, you know, cannabis. How it's perceived in the media. That it's an actual business. That it's an opportunity for Black people. Now, they really see this and they take it seriously. Whereas before, I think they just thought that I was just selling weed [laugh].
Dom: I think people, in general, are more aware of, like you said, those concerns that your family had about like potentially an individual selling pot, like what kind of legal lines are around that. But when it comes to a business, how are those inequities manifesting? Like, how are you as a Black cannabusiness person facing those inequities and fighting against them and creating change in that realm?
Amber Senter: Yeah, sure. So thankfully, operating above ground as a cannabis business and I mean, now listen, I'm also speaking from a place of privilege, right? Like I'm in Oakland, I'm in California. We can operate a cannabis business and, you know, we're not worried so much about the authorities and law enforcement as we are folks trying to rob us, right?
You know, our, our interactions with law enforcement have definitely shifted a bit, but there's still inequities. One of my cannabis facilities was robbed about a year ago. And, I call the police. And, the police — the first time they didn't show up, the second time, they were there when I pulled up after we had been, I'd gotten a call that we had been broken into. And, I'm walking up to the cop car when I see his lights sitting in front of the facility. I start walking up and he pulls away. You know, so, like, I. Exactly! So I see how —
Dom: Nyge and I both just made the, “What?” face.
Amber Senter: Right. Like, we don't get the support that we need because… Black. I'm a cannabis business. They don't want to deal with cannabis. They don't want to help cannabis. They hate cannabis business, you know? So it has certainly shifted, but not necessarily in a better way, right? Like, we might not be going to jail for weed here in this area, but we got new, new challenges, new problems.
Nyge: Can you, can you get a little bit into the story of Supernova Women's founding?
Amber Senter: Yeah. So I started Supernova Women with two other women, Sunshine Lencho and Nina Parks. We started that back in 2015. And, it was really because we would go to these spaces and we were getting involved in cannabis and we saw how Black people were getting left out. And, Nina Parks and I, we actually met on Valentine's Day 2015 at a cannabis event, and she and I were like, the only women of color there. And we thought, “Wow, this is crazy. Because, like. This is a cannabis event. Why are we the only Black and brown people here?”
And then we decided to come together and really start advocating on behalf of the community, like, showing up at Oakland City Council meetings. Like, hey, we're about to set up all these rules and regulations. But, what about all the Black people that need some help getting ready to be able to comply and and be in compliance to actually run a business? Like where's the support for them? And, out of all of that advocacy and those conversations came the first social equity program.
Dom: On top of all the social equity work that you're talking about and the centering of these Black and brown narratives, what other changes do you want to see happen in the cannabis industry in the next, say, five years?
Amber Senter: Hmm. That's a great question. I really want to see cannabis treated like an agricultural product. Like what it is. Right now, it's being treated and regulated like plutonium. You know what I mean? [Laughter] Like, it's crazy. And if you were to see, like, all of the compliance that's required to sell weed, it's just nuts when we've been doing it and using it as medicine for centuries.
Nyge: Do you have anything that has really surprised you in the industry so far, like since you started doing the work in the cannabis industry?
Amber Senter: Yeah, the amount of like white folks. Rich white men that have gotten in. They came in so fast. I mean, I guess it shouldn't be surprising, right? Like, I should not be surprised by that. But really, like, how many people have not been able to participate because the barriers have been so high. And then, the people that are able to participate because the barriers are so high, it's like, whoa. The landscape has completely changed in the past ten years and you've got all these hedge fund type folks, Wall Street people in here. It's like, “What?!” It happened quickly, you know, And I was really surprised at how fast the landscape changed.
Nyge: If you want to follow Amber and the work that she is doing, check out www.makr.house/ and www.supernovawomen.com.
Dom, you talked up top about having conflicting feelings surrounding the effects weed has had on the amount of people of color unjustly incarcerated. So let's talk to someone who's actively involved in fighting to correct that every day.
Dom: Mikelina Belaineh started their career as a teen campus activist. From there, they got their law degree, conducted research about decarceration and worked with gang-impacted individuals and communities.
Nyge: Now, Mikalina is the director of impact of the Last Prisoner Project, where they also host the podcast Just Cannabis, which examines the issue of cannabis justice through a series of interviews with directly impacted individuals and advocates.
Dom: The Last Prisoner Project is a 501(c)(3) advocacy nonprofit organization working at the intersection of criminal justice and cannabis reform.
Mikelina Belaineh: In short, we're dedicated to freeing all cannabis prisoners. That means anybody that's currently incarcerated for cannabis and/or anybody who is still living with the collateral consequences of cannabis criminalization. So folks who have cannabis offenses on their records and are living as second-class citizens as a result of that, right? So they too need to be freed. And so we do that through legal advocacy, which means taking cases, working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. We work together to take cases for people who are incarcerated for cannabis and work to get them out.
We also work in the policy sphere at the state and federal level, which means making sure anywhere where cannabis policy is being discussed that we're also talking about the criminal justice elements of cannabis policy. Meaning that if we're going to legalize cannabis, before we start talking about revenues and profits, we need to be talking about, “Do we need to free anybody who's incarcerated and do we need to clear the records of people who have already served time for this?” Right? So we work to make sure that that language is getting in there.
And then lastly, we do reentry work support. The thing that I'm most proud of is, we provide direct financial assistance for anybody that has been impacted by cannabis criminalization. Like cannabis justice is racial justice is gender justice is criminal justice, which is a lot of what I talk about in the podcast. The war on drugs and the war on cannabis has impacted all of us in varying degrees. But no matter where you sit, like every intersection of oppression, punishment, marginalization, like, the war on cannabis played a role in that.
Dom: And for those who don't know, I just I really want to lay it out for people - why are people being kept in prison in states where the industry is now legal?
Mikelina Belaineh: In short, the issue is resentencing. Well, first of all, there are places that legalize cannabis and did not think about the criminal justice elements, right? Initially, the legislation only focused on going forward, people will not — you cannot be arrested for cannabis. Going forward, you will like under this regulatory framework, you can engage in the sales of cannabis legally, right? But nobody thought to look backwards.
Like, what about all the people who have already been impacted, right? So people who have been incarcerated and people who have already served time and now have records. So what does it mean to make those people whole? Well, best-in-class policy is, one, automatic retroactive relief. That means that you, the state, if you have decided that you want to make profits off of cannabis, you need to go and identify everybody that has passed through your criminal legal system and has a record for cannabis. You need to clean that. So that's retroactive relief. That's expungement.
Most states are now incorporating expungement language. Giving people who have cannabis records a chance to, now, clear it.
The thing that nobody is really doing is resentencing. So you don't just need to clear people's records. If somebody, for example, we'll take on the podcast, we discuss - one of our guests, Richeda [Ashmeade] Sinclair, she's the daughter of one of our LPP (Last Prisoner Project) constituents, Ricardo Ashmeade. When Ricardo Ashmeade was convicted for the offense that he's now serving time for, it was his third offense. So imagine, like, you committed — you got in trouble, too, like 15 years ago, and now they get you with something and hit you with the three strikes mandatory minimum. When Ricardo Ashmead was sentenced under this three strike rule, cannabis wasn't legal at that time. You did this offense and you had these two priors. So therefore, you get a sentencing enhancement. It's like now you qualify for extra punishment. We're allowed to give you an extra long sentence because of these, these boxes have been checked, right? So Ricardo ends up with a 22 year sentence. Fast forward now, cannabis is legalized in the state where he had been convicted, but he does not benefit from the new legalization framework because the legislation did not include anything about resentencing people. Currently, as it stands, there's no justice.
Nyge: You have a new podcast called Just Cannabis, which focuses on the stories of women affected by the criminalization of cannabis. Can you tell us a little bit more about your podcast?
Mikelina Belaineh: Just Cannabis as a podcast is our attempt at Last Prisoner Project to center the voices of those who have been directly impacted by the war on cannabis. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) dropped this really great, influential report called A Tale of Two Countries detailing the racial disparities in cannabis arrests. And it was an amazing report because it gave, you know, research and grounding for the conversation. You know, cannabis legalization is a racial justice issue, and it had not really been being treated as one. And so I'm doing this research and I read the report, and women are not mentioned anywhere. And that was very strange to me because — so separate from my work, I do work on gender, sexuality, policing, and punishment. And currently, women are the fastest-growing correctional population in the country at far outpacing men's incarceration rates and arrest rates.
But it's this kind of silent issue because when people think criminal justice, they think Black men. Understandably so, because in terms of numbers, that issue has been massively removed and incarcerated, right? But what we didn't see is that there was this growing problem of women's incarceration. And women are primarily caught up in the criminal legal system for low-level nonviolent offenses. A large percentage of that is nonviolent drug offenses. So if we've got this women's incarceration epidemic on our hands and we're currently trying to solve for cannabis justice, it seemed like a huge oversight to not address the question of: how are women experiencing cannabis criminalization?
The other interesting thing, or sad thing, about womens’ incarceration is that a disproportionate number of women incarcerated are queer, trans, or non-binary. And so, what this means is that policing and punishment looks different depending on what body you’re in. Right?
And so, on the podcast, I interview a variety of women who have been directly impacted in one way or another by the war on cannabis. And through their stories, we gain new understanding, new insights, and new perspective on what the cannabis movement is all about and therefore what it is going to take to solve for these issues.
Nyge: And kind of in that same vein, what changes would you like to see in the world of cannabis justice in the next five years?
Mikalina Belaineh: So many. My dream, my vision is a police officer cannot approach, or intervene, or talk to me or anybody, any of my peers, with cannabis as, like, the reason. Because that's a world where we're more free. Right? Like, cannabis is a gateway to incarceration. It's the thing that we arrest the most for. Like we arrest more for cannabis than we do for any violent offense and for any other drug. And, Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis. So it's like even if cannabis isn't what you get convicted for, it's the thing that's pulling people in. So that means and would require full legalization. That means that like if you're on probation or parole, cannabis cannot be used against you. Right now, that's not the case. If you're going for an occupational license, if you're trying to get a job, cannabis can not be used against you past or present. If you're trying to get custody of your kid, cannabis cannot be used against you. That's the kind of world — that's the kind of world I'm looking for, right?
In the short term, the immediate first steps I would like to see are any states that have cannabis legalization or cannabis decriminalization anywhere, like in their legislation docket, past or present, I would want to see automatic retroactive relief language in there. Which means we're expunging people's records, we’re clearing people's records. I would want to see resentencing and commutation, meaning let's anybody that's serving time for cannabis, let's go and resentence them, commute their sentences so that they're released, right? And also clear their records and whatnot.
There's mad money. Like, there is so much money in the cannabis industry today and it's only growing. And so we've got this huge multi-billion dollar growing industry that is built off of the backs of directly impacted people, right? Something here doesn't add up, right? Like the money we need exists and the experts we need exist.
If you're going to start a cannabis business, how are you building fair chance hiring into the bedrock of what you do? Fair chance hiring says we are prioritizing hiring people with records and we are building a culture that is inclusive of people with these experiences and we're nurturing and making it so that they can thrive, right? If you have a cannabis business and you're not figuring out how are we making space for impacted people, that doesn't make sense to me. You could not have a business, but for the legacy market, it's like there's a moral dilemma at play. You're making money off of something that people are and have been harmed for, you know what I'm saying? And so it's like, and you're benefiting from the injustice of the law.
And I think it's like, you know, if you're a cannabis business owner or if you're in the cannabis industry, identifying what role you have to play in the like sort of resource support, right? That looks like hiring people, that looks like donating to organizations that do work in cannabis justice, that looks like a lot of different things. And I think there's a lot of room to innovate and solve if we really, really want to.
Nyge: If you want to support the Last Prisoner Project in their work, you can head to www.PardonsToProgress.com. You can also listen to the podcast Mikalina hosts, Just Cannabis, wherever you get your podcasts.
Dom: We've gotten some really great perspectives on cannabis so far, but I'm really curious about the research on the short and long-term effects that cannabis use can have on our brains.
Nyge: That's why we're going to call an expert. Tyler Lesh is a project scientist at UC Davis Center for Neuroscience. He studies the effects of cannabis on the brain and mental health with a particular focus on cannabis-induced psychosis.
Tyler Lesh: A lot of what we know about cannabis in the brain relates to studies in animals. So you have a mouse or a rat and you can give them the main sort of psychoactive properties of cannabis — so the parts of cannabis that make you high, and that's predominantly THC.
And what you generally see is that your brain as you're going through adolescence, is starting to make these connections, particularly to the front part of your brain. And the front part of our brains is what makes us be able to inhibit cursing in front of our parents or, you know, making good decisions about whether you should go base jumping and things like that, right? We see, the frontal part of your brain is controlling that. And during adolescence, that's really the part that's kind of coming online. And I think that's why a lot of teens sometimes do things that are risky or, you know, that maybe you might regret afterwards.
What they found is that if you administer, you know, these main parts of cannabis like THC, it does affect the development of this part of your brain. And so you'll find that in these animal studies, when these, these animals get to be adult animals, they don't interact with the other mice as, as well as those who weren't exposed to these drugs. Their cognition isn't quite as strong. So when you ask them to perform mazes and puzzles, things like that, they don't do as well.
Nyge: I know this is a huge question and you mentioned that it's what you've been studying and researching for so long, but can cannabis cause psychosis?
Tyler Lesh: Oh, boy. That's a, that's a question that's heavily loaded. Yeah. So, you know, over the last 30, 40 years of studies, there's a lot of evidence that these two things have a strong relationship. And you do find things that make you a bit concerned. So one of the, one of the findings was that there is this markedly increased risk for kids who use cannabis, you know, early in adolescence or many times more likely to get a diagnosis of a psychotic disorder later in life, you know, in their late twenties, for example. You guys probably know that cannabis is not the same as it used to be. Right? You know, we have much more powerful cannabis than we did in the seventies, you know, where it used to be 6 percent THC. Now you can get 30 plus percent THC. But what they found is that people who are using cannabis that was stronger, stronger strains, higher concentrations of THC, you sort of saw the risk of psychosis ratchet up actually as the strength of the cannabis they used went up. The rates of people who have psychotic episodes when using cannabis has also been going up as cannabis potency has increased.
I think the other side of the coin is that there are a lot of people that use cannabis and don't get psychotic. And I think one of the ways I like to describe it to people is that, you know, what are your risk factors? You know, in your family, do you have a history in your family of people hearing things or seeing things, you know, a history of mental illness in your family? Do you have, you know, unstable environments and things like that that cause you lots of stress and trauma in your history? Those are risk factors. You know, I think that would combine with using cannabis that might put you at greater risk for some of these mental health concerns later in life.
Dom: Is there an age at which those risks change, at which you sort of neurologically change from a young person into a person whose brain is more fully developed?
Tyler Lesh: Yeah, I mean, that's a great question. You do definitely see the risk drop as you get older. So they've looked at teens and young adults who started using cannabis at different ages. And the risk of psychosis does decline as you as you're older. So I can say with moderate confidence that the older you are, the more kind of set in its ways your brain is. You've made all of these connections and, and we do know that our brain still does change in adulthood, but a lot of the developmental aspects of your brain are finishing, you know, in your, your mid-twenties or so. Certainly, as you're getting into your, you know, your mid to late twenties, your brain is in pretty good, good shape in terms of its development.
Nyge: Something I'm curious about is what exactly is the difference between CBD and THC? Because I'm starting to see like CBD everywhere.
Tyler Lesh: Oh yeah.
Nyge: And a lot of like bars and stuff that I'll go out to. They'll have a like cocktail menu with CBD and infused drinks also on the list, but I don't even really know what CBD is.
Tyler Lesh: Yeah, I love that question. Yeah, you do see CBD everywhere. It's wild. You know, CBD stands for cannabidiol. So cannabis is a really unique drug in that it's not like, you know, methamphetamine or cocaine or other drugs where it's like a single compound, right? Cannabis has all of these parts to it. And the cannabis that you buy from somebody down the street is going to be different from the cannabis you get, you know, from a dispensary and so on. And so CBD doesn't have any properties that make you high, right? So you can take quite a bit of CBD, you will not get high, you will not get that elevated feeling, you won't get the giggles, you won't get the munchies. CBD does, you know, in some studies seem to have maybe some anti-inflammatory properties. But the one thing that the CBD has been approved for is actually [treating] epilepsy in childhood, severe childhood epilepsy.
The FDA has approved pure CBD for, for this condition. For epilepsy you're having a sort of misfiring of your brain, right? So it kind of dampens down this erratic activity of the brain. So you think about that and you're like, okay, well, maybe CBD is going to be good for me if I have anxiety or if I have sleep problems. And really there's not a whole lot of evidence yet to suggest that that's true. But, I think we'll know, we'll know in the next ten years if, if, if it does have some of these beneficial properties. So CBD, I think it's not likely probably to do a whole lot of harm, at least based on what we know so far. But we really don't know at this point whether it has beneficial properties.
Dom: Is there research that's differentiating the risks between smoking marijuana and ingesting it in edible form?
Tyler Lesh: You know, in terms of their risk, I think the main risk that we've discovered with edibles so far has been that you can't adjust on the fly how it's affecting you. So, if you're smoking something or vaporizing it, you can kind of adjust yourself on the fly and say, I'm getting really high now. I'm getting a little bit paranoid. Maybe I should, I should ease off. Right? But with edibles, you know, it takes 45 minutes to an hour for it to really hit you. And, and there's no turning back. And so there have been increases for E.R. admissions for people who've had too many edibles and have gotten too high and have gotten upset. It can cause things like cannabis-induced vomiting. And that's that's going to be more likely with, with an edible where you can't stop that, that process.
For people who are using cannabis like patients in my clinic, a lot of what we tell them is really just trying to adjust your use, trying to find lower THC concentrations. If you have the luxury, you know, of going to a dispensary or a place like that, they're required by the state of California, in our state at least, to label the product that they sell. Right. And you can see how much THC is in flower or in a vape cartridge. And you know really our recommendations are to just try to lower the THC dose as much as you can to try to minimize the risk.
Dom: So, so much of this interview has been about what we don't know about cannabis. Is there anything that we haven't mentioned yet? That's a great unknown that you want our listeners to know about or an unknown that keeps you up at night, perhaps?
Tyler Lesh: I mean, I think we're still learning about how cannabis affects our cognition. Like if you're a heavy cannabis user, for example, and you were to stop using cannabis, do you recover some of those cognitive abilities? If you're actively high, you're not going to remember things as well. You know, that's kind of universal. You typically don't want to go to your job high. You're not going to perform as well. You're not going to remember things as well. But recovery is different. It'll be interesting to see what we find.
You know, I don't want to be a ‘drugs is bad,’ kind of person. You know, I think there is so many nuances to this drug, and a lot of people that do find benefit from it. So I just, we just want to know more about how it works. I'm glad to share.
Dom: So thank you so much.
Nyge: Yeah. Thank you so much for doing this.
Dr. Tyler Lesh: Yeah. It's so great to talk to you all.
Dom: To keep up to date with Tyler's work, you can go to Google Scholar and simply search Dr. Tyler Lesch.
Nyge: To be honest, I didn't realize how little we knew about weed as a drug. Like, people are definitely finding some benefits from it, but so much about weed is still left unknown. And honestly, I’m, I'm excited about all the things that we could find out about in the near future. What about you, Dom?
Dom: I feel more conflicted than ever, but I feel like that's the point. I keep thinking about the young people in my life and what I'm going to tell them about weed or lawmakers that are doing everything that they can to perpetuate the status quo. And it makes me feel scared, but it also makes me feel really excited for change. This battle is really a reflection of our country's greatest fears, which are like, are the kids all right? And will these members of our family ever come home? And I am just very glad to be a small part of this really big conversation.
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French and by me, your boy, Nyge Turner.
Dom: Our engineer is James Riley.
Nyge: YR’s director of podcasting is Sam Choo.
Dom: YR’s senior director of podcasting and partnerships is Rebecca Martin.
Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR: Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza, and David Lawrence. Music Direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Nyge: Art Direction by Brigido Bautista and Marjerrie Masicat. Creative Direction by Pedro Vega Jr.
Dom: Special thanks to Eli Arbreton.
Nyge: We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm and if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five Stars is much appreciated.
Dom: You can follow us on all the socials @YRAdultish. And on that note, bye! [Laughter]
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