Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho is an attorney and the cofounder of Supernova Women, an organization dedicated to empowering women of color in the cannabis industry. Adem Bunkeddeko is a Democratic candidate for New York’s Ninth Congressional District with a focus on criminal justice reform. We introduced them over a couple slices of pie in Brooklyn.
Adem: I guess I'll start! My dad came here from Uganda with 50 bucks. He went to a detention center out in New Jersey. Then he worked a number of minimum wage jobs: McDonald’s, security guard, janitor, the whole bit. But eventually he saved up enough money and brought my mom over. I grew up in a little one bedroom apartment.
Sunshine: So they came separately? That’s interesting.
Adem: Yeah, they came separately. My dad was first. My mom stayed and lived through the war, which for them is still a trying experience that they don’t really talk about. Particularly my mom, because the village she came from is where the war actually started in full bloom. She would often talk about how there were skulls just lining the roads. Or how my grandma had to live in the forest for a number of months, because when the shooting started, people just ran out and did not come back.
Sunshine: Yeah, you just leave town. My Liberian cousins talk about that. You take to the road.
Adem: Yeah. And her brother—my uncle—had also been a child soldier. So it’s—
Sunshine: It’s really complicated.
“I’m a working-class kid from the hood, so when people tell you boarding school, you think juvenile detention.”
Adem: Yeah, it’s complicated. Uganda seemed like a nightmare. So when they got here, to them living in a one-bedroom apartment was just fantasy on earth. They got GEDs. My dad went to John Jay College. It took him a number of years to finish his first degree. My mom went to community college, but she couldn’t finish because she had to raise us, send money back home, do the whole bit. But they finally found work as social workers, and through their hard work and devotion, I managed to get a scholarship to go to boarding school.
Sunshine: Oh wait, I went to boarding school.
Adem: Oh yeah? Where did you go?
Sunshine: I went to Peddie.
Adem: Oh my god. I went to Pennington.
Sunshine: Get out of here, that’s hilarious. People in Cali think it’s weird, and I’m like, “It’s actually a really common way to get your kids private education: they get scholarships to prep school.”
Adem: I know. Most people are like, “How did your parents afford it?” I’m like, “My parents couldn’t afford it, are you kidding?”
Sunshine: People are like, “They were so smart to send you there!” And I’m like, “Uh, I took the test and sent myself.” I reread my admissions essay. That thing was ridiculous.
Adem: Thank you! I was telling someone that the other day. I applied at like 11th grade. I had an uncle who literally was just like, “The kids should apply to some of these fancy schools.” Mind you, I’m a working-class kid from, like, the hood, so when people tell you boarding school, you think juvenile detention.
It took me a whole year to come around to the idea. I was like, “Why are you guys trying to send me away?” My parents were very bohemian, so they didn’t know very much about it either. But when I actually started looking up some of these schools, I was like, “Oh, this isn’t so crazy.” You realize—
Sunshine: These kids have everything.
Adem: Yeah, these guys are having a great time. It was the first time I actually saw folks smoking weed without consequence. I’d come from a background where if you get caught with marijuana, well . . . But people there were really casual and liberal about it.
Sunshine: Oh, we had consequences. But the kids could have full, successful lives after getting kicked out. I thought getting kicked out was the worst, but as an adult, I’ve met the kids who got kicked out and I’m like, “Oh, you’re still better off than I am, huh?”
Adem: Yeah, I think that was the first moment I realized the real inequity around criminal justice, particularly the fact that if you were coming from where I came from and you got caught with anything, there were serious consequences. You’re gonna pay that punishment until you’re 18, and if you’re above 18, that’s it. It was effectively a life sentence. It was a really illuminating perspective that I didn’t truly appreciate ‘til I came back, graduated from college, started doing organizing, and started working with folks and families that were really being affected by criminal justice issues.
“There are issues around how we’ve thought about drugs culturally, particularly when it comes to working-class folks and working-class folks of color.”
Sunshine: I went to boarding school too, but I sort of groomed myself for it from the moment I realized that it was an option. My mom came to America from Liberia by herself when she was 16, put herself through high school in New York, and then was a stay-at-home mom for us. I ended up picking Peddie because it had so many black girls two classes above mine.
The people I met at Peddie are still my friends now, 20-something years later. And you can see how the development of those relationships impacts society at large: what people are willing to do for their friends from boarding school transitions into what they’re willing to do for people from college to the people they went to law school with. It’s certainly helped me in a lot of ways. It made it a lot easier for me, a kid whose dad drives a taxi and whose mom works for public schools, to feel comfortable in a lot of different places.
My dad was in the Ethiopian Air Force, so he’s very regimented and strict. And though I was willing to challenge my parent’s authority, I always took a certain set of things to be foundational truths. One of those things was that drug use is really damaging, and cannabis is a gateway to the ending of all opportunity.
Adem: It’s funny. Growing up, my parents were never explicitly like, “Drugs are bad.” They were more like, “So and so is doing this, so and so is doing that. See? Bad outcomes.”
I don’t smoke. I’ve tried it and it’s just not my jam. But what I’ve realized is that there are issues around how we’ve thought about drugs culturally, particularly when it comes to working-class folks and working-class folks of color. There’s a growing awareness of the fact that people who may not know how to use controlled substances in a responsible way are not bad people. I think there’s always this moral weight attributed to them: “these people are just the most vile human beings of all time.” And you know, it’s not true. There’s a host of reasons why people fall into sort of bad usage of it. And that to me I think speaks to a cultural shift.
But there are a lot of working-class folks like, “Well, when crack cocaine was rolling through in the 1980s and 1990s, where was the mercy? Where was the redemption?” Families were broken up. Folks were sent away for prison terms that, now that we think about it in today’s context, are seen as quite cruel. And to be punishing people for crack cocaine as a higher offense than cocaine signals to a lot of folks that the system is geared toward—
Sunshine: A certain type of people?
“I realized that I had a lot of basic assumptions that I needed to question.”
Adem: Exactly. It’s easy to see someone locked up and say, “Yeah, you know clearly they made a bad decision.” But there’s more nuance to it. That’s why I like that your work provides folks of color an inroad to a space that they probably know pretty well and have been locked up for participating in.
But I’m curious, how did you—
Sunshine: Go from wearing a “Just Say No” sweatshirt in my school photo to this?
Sunshine: I mean, I went to college in California . . .
I showed up at Stanford, bored one Saturday, and everybody’s doing some school activity and I’m too cool for school because I already did this in boarding school, right? One of my hallmates was that side of campus’s supply of weed at the time, and he was like, “Hey, you want to come outside and smoke with us?” At that point, I had only experienced alcohol. And I was like, “Maybe I’ve been missing something.”
So I go outside and it’s a clear winter night. We’re smoking out of bowls, so first he had to teach me how to not set my fingernails on fire, how to hold the bowl, and how to pull. And once you figure out all the logistics of the hardware, then you actually get to notice the effects of it. And I was like, “This is pretty cool.”
I remember hearing the crickets chirping, and they were really, really clear. The sky was beautiful, and I just felt really centered. I realized that I had a lot of basic assumptions that I needed to question. I was like, “Weed is cool, maybe they’re lying to us, but also maybe it’s addictive?”
I decided to do a little research into cannabis prohibition when I was taking a wine law class. Clearly I like vices! I was fortunate enough to have a visiting professor at the time who encouraged me to research it for my research paper. And at the time, I was still kind of hesitant, so I was like, “I’m going tiptoe around studying weed, but I’m not going to fully study it,” because I want to have a clean record for the FBI, or something only an ultra-paranoid kid from the D.C.-area would think about.
But it was really hard for me to not want to get involved. I was an art history major in college because I liked studying history through the visual representation of something, and I think if you do the visual representation of cannabis prohibition, it’s a pretty stark history, and it’s pretty clearly racialized. So I wanted to make sure that we kept race at the center of the legalization initiatives that we’re trying to put forward around the country, because I think that otherwise, people are just going to take this rational economic approach and then you end up perpetuating systems of injustice that you see in other sectors.
“I just want to see folks who’ve been locked out and locked up for years be able to take part.”
Adem: What struck me about what you said is the systems. Structurally, we’ve often gone after folks who can put up the least fight. That tends to be lower income folks and folks of color, rather than the power structure that props up the entire bit. That’s why I think a big part of criminal justice reform is legalizing cannabis. It’s not only an important step forward from a social and moral perspective, but economically and politically.
Economically, it’s actually a pretty reasonable position to hold. In terms of the taxing, there is now an additional income stream for the government to be able to build roads, schools, hospitals—you name it. Politically, it’s about making sure we’re enfranchising folks who have paid an unfair cost relative to other members of society. If you are tagged as a felon with possession, your ability to earn a living is completely injured. Your ability to provide for your family is completely injured. And what does that do? It means that a large swathe of the population, particularly folks of color, can’t participate in the labor market effectively. And that has its own costs, even from the public sector. That’s additional money that we now have to spend because folks aren’t able to live out their best lives.
It’s going to take some time, but tax it and regulate it, just as a controlled substance. Figure out ways in which folks are able to be licensed to sell it, and allow states to generate revenue from it. And then direct that revenue towards affordable housing, particularly for folks who are being gentrified out of working-class communities. Then we have a new income stream—
Sunshine: Millions. Millions!
Adem: Yeah, I’d imagine—
Sunshine: The tax revenue for California is supposed to be a billion dollars in taxes!
Adem: Imagine if you had a stream of a billion dollars here in New York state to go toward affordable housing or education or health care! I mean, that’s money that could make a huge difference for a lot of folks who are struggling to make ends meet. Put food on the table, make sure that the kids are going to decent schools. That’s a positive stream, as opposed to a negative one where we’re spending billions locking people up. I got a question for you: you’re on the cutting edge in terms of folks of color in the space, how are you encouraging them? How are you thinking about that?
Sunshine: Going to networking events in the cannabis space, I started realizing that I was often one of the only black women there. That’s not rare for me, being a lawyer, but it’s rare in a new industry, especially one that I know has put enough black people behind bars that you would expect us to be overrepresented in these spaces. It seemed to me three years ago that if we wanted people of color to participate, we had to be there when they created the priority structure for people to own businesses. And I was in California watching people try to create restrictions around their local licensing that would make it impossible for the people that were being incarcerated to then come and own businesses.
But cannabis is capital intensive, so you can’t just hand someone a business entitlement without handing them support. So with Supernova Women, we started out doing educational events around the business side of the cannabis business.
Adem: Yeah, I just want to see folks who’ve been locked out and locked up for years be able to take part.
Sunshine: That terrifies people though. I don’t read the comments to most articles. I try not to. But every once in a while, I happen to scroll past one, especially when it’s about an equity program that puts people who have gone to jail first, and there are always people who buy into the “SVU” presumption that anyone who gets arrested and prosecuted is actually a bad person. That mindset is the one that makes it harder for people to get behind the idea that the first businesses in Oakland are going to be owned by the formerly incarcerated. If you wanna piss off someone who’s never had to check their privilege, explain that to them. And they’ll be like, “What do you mean? I have all these degrees and I don’t get to go first?”
I often say, “If your equity program benefits me, you’ve done it wrong.” I can figure out how to get a business. I’m not the population you’re supposed to be serving with this.
Adem: Call it out.
Sunshine: Yeah, you just have to point it out to them.
Adem: Most people who are privileged don’t know even know that they’re privileged. So just being mindful of the fact that, you know, you can just tap them on the shoulder and say, “Hey, look buddy. Just wanted to fill you in on a few things here.”
Sunshine: Really nice people will do that. People are very comfortable with me, so they tell me a lot of things they probably shouldn’t. One person called me to talk about this equity program, and she was perplexed, because she didn’t understand why people couldn’t just figure out how to operate a business the way the rest of the people in the gray market have figured it out. “I just don't get it,” she said to me. “I'm trying to understand, but I don’t really get it.” I was just like, “Racism.”
Who is going to feel comfortable asking a question about how you register and pay taxes for a business when you know that it’s more likely than not you’re going to go to jail for asking that question? Just think about it. People don’t feel comfortable signing up to get recommendations because they’re afraid of being in a database somewhere. How would they feel comfortable saying, “I make edibles that I sell into dispensaries. I see patients buying and consuming, and I’d like to see how I could register for a business with you all and get a license.”
It’s mind blowing when you say to someone who’s been doing something informally for so long, “Hey, you know you can just get a permit for that, right?”
Adem: It’s something I’ve noticed too. We’ve become more progressive, more enlightened, but in some ways, less empathetic. I don’t know how the two are kind of running in different directions, but it’s startling to me. You ever bother to put yourself in someone's shoes? I mean, there aren’t many people who get to maneuver very different worlds, and I think it’s imperative that folks who do be able to illuminate those who may not have had that experience. And that goes for both sides of the fence.
Sunshine: Well, it was great talking with you today. Best of luck in your race.
Adem: Great meeting you, too. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Tsion Lencho photographed by Cayce Clifford at her home in Oakland. Adem Bunkeddeko photographed by Meredith Jenks at his campaign office in Brooklyn.