Social Justice & Cannabis: Part 5 — An immigrant’s perspective

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This is the fifth article in a series on social justice and the cannabis industry for Motif. The term social justice means different things to different people. To me, it means: Justice in relation to a fair balance in the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges in a culture where individuals’ rights are recognized and protected.


Many people from around the world strive to move to the United States because — more often than not — the places where they live do not have a fair balance of wealth, there are few opportunities and individuals’ rights are neither recognized nor protected.

Even in the U.S., tangible examples of social justice are elusive and far less common than they should be. Nevertheless, many people are motivated to emigrate to the U.S. because they believe they will at least have a chance of achieving some level of social justice in some part(s) of their lives.

The expanding legal cannabis industry in the US and Canada presents considerable economic and professional opportunities for people with a wide range of technical skills. The cannabis industry is just one area of our economy where we need skilled workers. It should not matter where these skilled workers were born.

Collins Omolo is a native of Kenya and the chief science officer in the Tissue Culture Department at Emerald Leaf Organics (ELO), a business established in 2017 to grow cannabis for medical consumers. Today, ELO is a prominent Rhode Island cannabis grower that provides high-quality product for both medical and recreational users.

I recently corresponded with Omolo about issues related to social justice and cannabis. During this interview, Omolo offered insights that emerged from his experiences as an immigrant working in the cannabis industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lenny Brennan (Motif): As a cannabis professional who came to the US from Africa, has your international background influenced your perspectives regarding social justice?

Collins Omolo: Yes, my international background has influenced my perspective regarding social justice. My family is composed of Kenyan-born American citizens. My mother’s family owns land in Kenya that has been passed down for generations. Prior to my mother’s generation there was no emphasis on education. My grandparents were uneducated. My mom’s generation was the first to attain their high school diplomas.

America, to Kenyans at the time, was viewed as the land of opportunity. My mother, upon graduating, made it her goal to further her education and raise her children in America so that we would have a better life than she did. We moved to the US in 2002. We were unaware of the racism that was occurring, and still occurs, in America.

My mom told my siblings and me that to prosper as a Black man in America you must speak properly. I was only about five-years-old at the time. I did not understand why we needed to speak properly or that I was even Black. I simply believed we were all human and that the pigmentation of my skin differed from others.

It was not until I moved to Mississippi, in 6th grade, that I realized the injustices that had occurred to people of color. The school I attended, which was 98% Black, was nothing like the public school I had attended in Ohio. The books were in terrible condition with missing pages. The desks were filthy with gum stuck underneath. Because of gang violence, we had to go through a metal detector to enter school. I realized there was social injustice among people of color when I found out there was a private school less than a mile away that was in great condition and was 98% White.

Racial fears and stereotypes became apparent to me because I was rejected by my own community due to the pigment of my skin. I was a lot darker than my fellow Black students, spoke properly and retained my African features. Due to this, I was viewed as an African, not a Black American or African American, but rather just an African. The other Black students did not want to associate themselves with their African roots. I got into a physical altercation with a fellow classmate because I was trying to inform him of Black Americans’ origins. For those who know me today, I am always proud to mention that I am Kenyan. Due to my fellow students’ reaction at the time, I stopped mentioning that I was African.

One day when I was walking to school as a 7th grader a police officer stopped me and asked where I was going. Keep in mind we had to wear uniforms. I responded, “I’m on my way to school.” The officer then asked me, “Why?” I gave him a puzzled look and he exclaimed, “You’ll be dead before you graduate, there’s no point.”

Because of the various circumstances we endured, my mom made it her mission to move us up north. After completing her PhD, she got a job at Community College of Rhode Island. My mom searched for the best public school districts in RI. That is why my family ended up being the first “dark skin” family to move to Scituate.

In school all we were taught was colored people went through slavery and then they were freed. There was no mention of what proceeded after that and until this very day. These experiences are why I have such a strong perspective on social injustice being reflected in the definition of social justice. And it is also why I believe the cannabis tax money should aim to restore these broken communities.

LB: Thank you, Collins, for your insights and perspectives.