Sue Taylor is an African-American grandmother who runs three miles a day and describes her late 60s as the time of her life. She’s a retired Catholic school principal living in Berkeley, California, who wears pearls and stylish pantsuits, holds a divinity school degree, and attributes her “perfect health” to marijuana, which she uses orally and topically for pain relief and better sleep. She says her spiritual journey has led her to realize her soul’s purpose: to connect the elderly with weed. She’s on a national mission to do just that.
Sue obviously isn’t anyone’s stereotypical pot user, and she says that’s one reason she’s the perfect candidate to approach seniors about pot. She sits on the Commission on Aging in Alameda County and visits retirement homes and senior groups, hosting seminars locally and nationally to educate people about various cannabis medicine options. Sue is one of just two people certified through the State of California to educate senior living facility staff and caregivers about medical marijuana, which means that nurses and facility directors who take her classes can receive continuing education units toward their yearly certifications.
If you told Sue Taylor 20 years ago that she’d be doing all of this, she probably would have laughed in your face. She, like many, was raised with the Reefer Madness-esque scare tactics of the (failed and disastrous) war on drugs. For most of her life, she believed marijuana was a hard and deadly drug. She also knew that as a woman raising black sons in America, pot was unsafe territory that led to arrests and ruined lives.
Then one day Sue got a life-altering phone call from her son, Jamal, when she was living in Atlanta, Georgia writing a parenting handbook. Jamal told her he’d been attending the first-ever marijuana industry trade school, Oaksterdam University, which teaches students to grow, sell and advocate for marijuana medicine. In Oakland, as in the rest of California, the use of cannabis for medical purposes is legal with a doctor’s recommendation. He said he’d figured out how she could open the metaphysical holistic center she’d dreamed of opening for years.
Sue remembers her son saying, “You could have yoga and acupuncture and meditation, all that, and it would be funded by cannabis.” She wasn’t even sure what cannabis was.
“I said, ‘Are you talking about that marijuana stuff?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, mom. I’ve been learning it’s medicine.’” Jamal sent his mom pages and pages of information about medical pot.
She read it, but wasn’t convinced. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this boy…I sent him to Catholic school all of his life, and then he calls to tell me he wanna sell weed?”
Frantic and worried that she was losing her son to drugs, Sue hopped a plane to Oakland to “save him.” But then, in Oakland, with her son’s encouragement, Sue began to meet and talk with professionals in the cannabis industry—scientists, advocates, dispensary workers. She learned that no one has ever died from cannabis ingestion or overdose, and that hundreds of medical studies of the herb have proven its potential. She learned that cannabis has been used for healing for thousands of years to treat pain, nausea, inflammation and other symptoms. She also learned that it’s generally safer and often more effective than synthetic pharmaceutical drugs, especially for the elderly—and much cheaper, too.
But nothing convinced her of weed’s medicinal potential more than the patients she met. Eventually, their stories of personal healing—from everything from chronic pain to cancer—changed her outlook on the herb.
Sue laughs when she tells the story now.
“If I was gonna be the messenger, the senior face of medical cannabis, the universe knew it had to grab one of my children,” she said. “That’s the only way I would have gotten involved in it. It caught my attention, you see? Nothing else would have caught my attention, and nobody.”
She began volunteering for the large Oakland cannabis collective, Harborside Health Center, teaching people in their 70s, 80s and 90s about how pot works. She said she’s always careful to tell anyone she speaks with she’s not a doctor and has no medical advice. She instructs them to keep their MDs informed of their choice to use cannabis, and not to go off of any pills until their doctor gives the go-ahead.
Now Sue is in the process of opening Berkeley, California’s fourth cannabis club, iCANN Health Center. Sue is a founding partner and director of iCANN, which is primarily geared towards seniors. She said it will also serve African-Americans and other minority populations that have generally been marginalized in the cannabis scene. The City of Berkeley selected iCann in May from a pool of six applicants, and Sue thinks they were chosen because iCANN is the first club focused on serving the senior demographic. It’s also the first pot club in the area run by a multi-generational, mixed-race group that includes a black family.
The process leading up to iCANN has been, at times, financially and emotionally devastating for Sue. About nine years ago she poured her life’s savings, as well as investments from several family members, into a cannabis club endeavor in Los Angeles right before the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) cracked down on the region’s pot collectives. While a number of collectives defied the mandate and kept their doors open—on the gamble that they likely wouldn’t face any serious charges—Sue says she and her family suspected that, because they’re black, they would be the first targets for arrest and further government crackdown. So, they closed their doors. When she tells this story, she cries.
Her story speaks to an insidious trend in the burgeoning pot industry: white men are profiting hugely, while women and people of color remain marginalized. Cannabis continues to be the fastest growing industry in the US, and reports about its soaring profits and endless investment opps are everywhere. Yet the painful history—and continuation, according to recent FBI statistics—of racially targeted marijuana arrests, and the thousands of people still serving long sentences for pot-crimes, are rarely mentioned. Decades of dedicated underground culture and activism—the legalization movement—that have made the industry a reality in the first place, are often overlooked. Michelle Alexander, law professor and bestselling author of The New Jim Crow:Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness spotlighted the racial disparities of the industry in 2014 after Colorado and Washington made the unprecedented move to legalize adult-use marijuana.
“In many ways the imagery doesn’t sit right,” she said in a public conversation in 2014 with Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”
The last two years haven’t shown much change in that trend, and Sue remains an outlier in an industry that is becoming increasingly whitewashed. But, she says, the adversity and fear that she confronts in her work are all the more reason to keep going “in the name of compassion.”
Sue Taylor spoke with Jezebel about the realities of being a black woman with black children in the pot industry, and the incredible potential of cannabis medicine to help seniors, who are now the fastest-growing demographic in the market.
“The same love and care I had for my students and parents has now gone to seniors. I want to bring awareness that there are alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs, and to empower people, whatever their age, so they can experience a meaningful, high quality of life. It’s not, ‘When you turn 60 life’s a bitch and then you die.’ That’s not true.
“I am approaching 69 and I am happier now than I’ve ever been. You don’t find many women this age saying that. This is the time of my life. I’m having the time of my life because I’m doing passionate work. I’m helping a demographic that most people have forgotten about.
“You know, they (the doctors) told my sister, ‘You don’t need another colonoscopy, you’re approaching 70.’ In other words, “You’re just gonna be dying anyway.” That’s the trend for anybody who’s over 60, 70, 80 and 90. But I want to bring awareness that seniors are pearls of wisdom. They are wisdom keepers, but that respect’s gone missing. You see this in the pharmaceutical approach: Just give them anything—give them a pill, that’ll fix it. There’s something wrong in that.
“When I’m working with seniors and they first come to me, most of them are on 15 to 20 pills, when they really sought out a pill for maybe two ailments, say high blood pressure and cholesterol. Then, say the cholesterol pill caused their heart to go out so now they gotta take a heart pill. The heart pill caused their liver to act up, so now they gotta go on a liver pill. The high blood pressure pill made their thyroid go off, so now they have to take a pill for their thyroid.
“For each one of those pills, the side effects cause more problems. And usually it’s their adult children who come to me, and they say, ‘My mom or dad is on all these pills, and I heard marijuana might help.’
“I say first thing, make your doctor fully aware you’re gonna be using cannabis. Just make them aware of it—doesn’t matter if the doctor agrees or not. They start using cannabis, go back to the doctor, and the doctor starts taking them off pills. Six months later, the doctor eliminates more pills. I tell them don’t go off of any pills unless your doctor says to. This does two things: It ensures people are safe, and it makes the doctor aware of the cannabis as medicine. I cannot turn my back on cannabis because of the healing I’ve seen that plant do. Pharmaceuticals save a lot of lives, and for temporary reasons, they are wonderful. But they’re not meant to manage health on a long-term basis, and that’s what we’re using them for. And it’s actually causing more devastation.”