BHM Profile | Richmond activist seeks end to disparate marijuana law enforcement

Chelsea Higgs Wise is the co-founder of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit organization that works to legalize marijuana by focusing on racial justice and social equity. Photo by Jon Mirador

Ebonique Little, Spectrum Editor

After Black Lives Matter protests erupted in Richmond last May, supporting the work of protesters and leading demonstrations became a full-time career for Chelsea Higgs Wise. 

“People were getting physically beaten by the police, the tear gas was impacting people’s bodies,” said Wise, a clinical social worker and VCU alumna. “So by June, I had quit my job.”

Months of protests ensued following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed after a Minneapolis police officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Wise said protesting and redistributing monetary donations to others involved in the movement was all she did from June to September. 

Wise dedicated more time to her own organization, Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit that works to legalize marijuana and achieve social equity. She co-founded it in 2019 with Ed Miller. Wise said its founding was in direct response to Virginia’s 400-year commemoration of the first African slaves brought to the commonwealth.

“There were many conversations about reconciliation for our people, and a real promise at ending Jim Crow and a reinvestment,” Wise said. “And so when we heard that call, we noticed the national narrative of legalizing cannabis.” 

Through lobbying efforts, weekly panel discussions and social media, Wise cites marijuana legalization as a step toward racial reconciliation. 

“And we could do that through legalizing cannabis the right way — actually decriminalizing it, legalizing it, legalizing being Black behind the wheel, legalizing being Black and walking down the street and not having marijuana as a gateway to the criminal punishment system,” Wise said.

Gov. Ralph Northam proposed legislation in January to legalize recreational cannabis use with a 21% state tax and licensing program intended to ease restrictions for those previously impacted by the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws, according to Northam’s press release.

With marijuana’s potential legalization in two years, Marijuana Justice advocates for the automatic expungement of previous convictions, divestment from police and reinvestment in Black communities affected by the war on drugs.

Miller, who serves as the organization’s president and leads corporate partnership efforts, said the Virginia House and Senate approval of Northam’s proposal has made the group move with a greater sense of urgency. 

“It’s definitely accelerated a lot of what we’re doing,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, if we have legalization without equity, then we’ve failed as an organization.”

Marijuana Justice and more than 20 social justice groups sent a letter to Northam on Feb. 9 outlining five demands — repeal the marijuana prohibition, take no action that will criminalize another generation of youth, repair the harm done by marijuana prohibition, ensure that impacted communities have access to the new legal markets and implement meaningful and specific reinvestment in the communities harmed by marijuana prohibition. 

“The way that we use criminalizing Black people around the plant is feeding into our carceral system,” Wise said. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia — one of the supporters of the letter — Black people are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts in Virginia, despite similar usage rates.

The ACLU found that Hanover County has the highest rate of racial disparity in marijuana arrests with Black people being 20.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of the drug.

“I try and keep myself immersed in what the narratives are happening locally, nationally, internationally and reframe them for a social justice to really interrogate the racial narratives in the former capital of the Confederacy.” — Chelsea Higgs Wise, co-founder of Marijuana Justice

Wise said subsequent convictions and penalty fines can impact credit, employment opportunities and housing access. She said such is still the case in states where marijuana has been legalized.

“It’s these folks that have already had the disenfranchisement of having their human rights and human needs met, and that we’re seeing across the country,” Wise said. “So whatever is still illegal around marijuana, we know that enforcement is going to be Black and brown people.”

Asma Alomari, the strategic project coordinator for Marijuana Justice and a VCU alum, said they work with Wise on a daily basis to repair some of these disparities.

Alomari and Wise closely follow any marijuana or expungement bill updates from Virginia’s legislature and hold meetings with delegates and senators to create documents about their concerns and recommendations.

“Not just like, ‘Oh, we want social equity,’”Alomari said. “It’s more of like, ‘We want social equity, and this is what we think it looks like.’”

Wise said her personal journey to becoming a voice for social equity began after the death of her Sigma Gamma Rho sorority sister, Sandra Bland, in 2015.

Bland was a Black woman who was found hanging in her jail cell three days after being arrested for a routine traffic stop in Waller County, Texas. 

“I was really radicalized and politicized back in 2015,” Wise said. “Watching her story as someone that spoke out about injustice, and then was murdered while in police custody — where folks are sworn to protect us — really pushed me.”

Wise said this moment paralleled a turning point in her personal life.

Wise poses for a portrait. Photo by Jon Mirador

“I was also going through a personal transformation with a divorce and a one-year-old daughter,” Wise said. “And within finding my own role, and as a mother, I really wanted to be able to say that I was more involved in my community.”

Her community involvement expanded in 2018, when she began her weekly radio show Race Capitol after the killing of Marcus-David Peters, a VCU alumnus who was shot by a Richmond police officer while experiencing a mental health crisis on Interstate 95.

“I saw the media really painting him as this out-of-control nonhuman that had to have been shot down,” Wise said. “And as a clinical social worker, I worked with people like Marcus every day that derobed and were having this type of breakdown, and there was never a need to shoot and kill them.”

Wise said she started Race Capitol to change the narrative. She invited Naomi Isaac, a Virginia Student Power Network (VSPN) community organizer, and Kalia Harris, co-executive director of VSPN, to join the show last March.

Together, they discuss Richmond political news such as the new shared policing system between VCU and the Richmond Police Department.

“We just saw that the city council keeps saying that they want to address the police issues or issues of trust in our community,” Harris said, “but they continue to vote to give them more power.”

Wise said she will continue to question policing in the Black community.

“I try and keep myself immersed in what the narratives are happening locally, nationally, internationally,” Wise said, “and reframe them for a social justice to really interrogate the racial narratives in the former capital of the Confederacy.”

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