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EMBER / Interviews
February 25, 2019
The New Normal


Photography by ROBERT MAXWELL

Styled by MAR PEIDRO

Actor and activist Jesse Williams is making history, with director Spike Jonze and MedMen, on the first-ever cannabis dispensary TV commercial. Williams gets blunt about past and present hurdles marring America’s relationship to weed—and why marijuana Prohibition’s end is imminent.

About MedMen’s TV Commercial

Jesse Williams was a history teacher before he became an actor, so it makes sense that he is familiar with America’s long past with marijuana. In MedMen’s new Spike Jonze–directed commercial, the first-ever TV ad for a marijuana dispensary, Williams takes a journey through time to educate viewers about weed legalization. The commercial, he says, “is about normalizing in public what is already becoming increasingly normal in private, which is a knowledge that marijuana isn’t this great big boogeyman. It’s a bit of a history lesson because I was a history teacher. This country was founded by marijuana growers and farmers.”

The criminalization of marijuana has been likened to Prohibition, and Williams heralds this moment as the end of Prohibition. “Marijuana has been criminalized and demonized in a way that has really hurt, particularly black and brown folks and people without means, for so long in this country. It’s dishonest, both the policy and the way it’s been enforced. We want to remind the American people that we’re entering the end of Prohibition; we’re taking the blindfold off and saying, ‘Look, this is not that big of a deal.’ People use marijuana. CBD is treating things for people, easing their pain and discomfort. This is part of our culture, and adults should have agency and the right to make their own decisions.” He sees it as part of a larger cultural shift: “It’s an option that’s part of a lifestyle; it’s not a threat. Something that drove people to the black market is now driving global markets. So we just want to be on the right side of history and decriminalize and normalize things ... we’re just kind of starting that off by being the very first commercial ever to happen, which is pretty dope.”

Jesse Williams’ Collaboration with MedMen

MedMen’s co-founder and CEO, Adam Bierman, first met Williams in 2018 at a concert: “I showed Jesse what we were trying to do with the commercial, and it fit with him and the values he holds,” Bierman recalls. “It was important that we told an authentic story, and he was the right person to do it. The same goes with Spike ... He believes in the story we are telling.” By collaborating with Jonze, whom Williams calls “a genius,” the actor and activist hope the commercial “can have an impact on culture; we are taking that responsibility seriously and trying to strip some of the mythology around it, via a history lesson.”

Highlighting social justice issues related to cannabis factored significantly into MedMen’s objectives for the campaign, Bierman says. “We believe every company has a responsibility to be a good corporate citizen,” he explains. “We are in a unique position as a leader in cannabis to effect change, which includes the expungement clinics we sponsor and the legalization efforts we support.”

Within the broader parameters of social (in)justice, cannabis legalization is, specifically, a racial justice issue—and bringing that to the forefront is of utmost importance to Williams. “I think a connective thread needs to be made, because the truth is, in middle-income white America, [cannabis] is already pretty normal: it’s the joke in every single coming-of-age movie, from Animal House to Superbad. White people know their kids smoke weed ... They’re selling it, and buying it, but it’s not that big of a deal, because they’re human beings with potential in their lives, and that’s okay,” Williams says. “But when black and brown folks do it, we’re thrown in cages for the rest of our lives, shot in the street, and then it’s justified in the news because someone might have had some marijuana in their system.”

It’s impossible to fully separate race and class, in terms of “how legislation is handed out and how laws are enforced,” per Williams. “Legally, people aren’t playing fair. Racially, they’re not playing fair. So, we’re cutting the legs out from under that mythology that is used as fuel for demonizing black and brown people.”

Williams is excited to be on the new frontier of media promoting marijuana legalization and sales. “I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not scared of being the first in trying new things and speaking truth to power,” he says. “I don’t want people to have to drive three hours to visit their father in jail just because he got caught with some weed, while people are hooked on opiates, alcohol, and nicotine.” Thus, one of the commercial’s broader objectives is “trying to push back on the hypocrisy,” per Williams.

Growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, Williams saw the effects of the war on drugs firsthand: “I’ve seen actual impacts of real drugs, of crack, destroy communities; I’ve seen police destroy communities. I’ve seen things that are real problems. So you’re not going to scare me into believing that people smoking some marijuana or taking some CBD or an edible is a threat to society.” This commercial is a necessary pushback that has been a long time coming, led by MedMen, Williams explains: “Literally, our founding fathers grew marijuana— they’re on our money, and we’re naming our schools after them for doing the exact same thing that gets poor, black, and brown folks thrown in prison? That’s for you to reconcile.”

Williams was in high school when he first learned that the founding fathers grew hemp. “I remember learning that George Washington had a hemp farm and wooden teeth. Then I did my own research and learned that hemp was actually like cotton for a while in this country. It was the textile; the main resource. And then, I learned about how and why it was criminalized.” Williams also considered who exactly was allowed to profit off the textile and growing industries: “The common denominator of American history, and colonialism in general, is—all the things you’re told to be terrified of, you realize are dwarfed by comparison to how power actually exerts itself.”

Cultural Shifts in Cannabis

Cutting through that hypocrisy to common sense is what drew Williams to this project. “The goal of this particular campaign is, very simply, to culturally normalize and demystify something that has been oversimplified and weaponized. We want to decriminalize marijuana, both politically and philosophically. Culture celebrates people like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Jack Kerouac—these people smoked marijuana. The first presidents smoked marijuana, and also they owned slaves, so let’s get off our high horse here.” Williams emphasizes the importance of looking to history: “Without context, you’re useless. Information is power. It’s helpful to point out the irony that the same group of people that calls immigrants lazy also enslaved an entire race of people to do work they didn’t want to do. They’re full of shit. If you don’t have historical context, you’re just kind of wandering aimlessly in the dark.”

However, Williams maintains faith that the American experiment could still work. “You can’t unlearn equity and equality. There’s a rising tide of perspective from women, black and brown folks, and the LGBTQ community—you can’t undo that.” Pushback from bigots is inevitable, but will be overcome, he says. “Weak people scare easily; they don’t have many tools at their disposal outside of being told that they’re better than anybody else. That might last you one or two rounds in a fight, but it’s not going to take you 12. So we’re going to outlast them, outlive them—and possibly convert some of them.”

The cultural shift is already taking hold in California, where marijuana legalization has normalized behavior that once was covert. “There’s less fear, dishonesty, and lurking around, which is good. There’s more transparency. Instead of having to sneak around to smoke a joint before going in to deal with their family on Christmas, people are able to just do it on the front porch. Folks can vape and it’s not hurting anybody—it’s stimulating the economy,” Williams muses. But more profound shifts in legislation and cultural attitudes toward cannabis will take time: “We’re not going to get everything done overnight. We still have thousands and thousands of people living in 12’ by 10’ cages—for having an entrepreneurial spirit, trying to put food on the table—while other people make millions off of [cannabis],” Williams explains. “That’s not fair, and it needs to be worked on. MedMen has committed to being a part of that. They’re helping get people’s records expunged. It’s a process, and it’s not built in a vacuum, but it can aim for equal footing.”

Having the conversation is the first step, and the MedMen commercial will lead that conversation. “For me, this is a racial justice issue first. There are all types of coding going on, and we’re just trying to be included in that great American dream. We just need to decide whether we’re going to allow non-straight, nonwhite people to enjoy what they’re enjoying,” Williams continues. “This is holding a mirror up to American policy and practice. I want people to like and enjoy their weed, but not without thinking about how we got here. Marijuana legalization has to be a racial justice issue, because it is a racial justice issue, fundamentally.”

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