Fighting Cultural Misconceptions

By Larry Buhl for Marijuana Venture

[Yami] Bolanos says she was enraged and horrified when an acquaintance died after being denied a liver transplant because he tested positive for marijuana he’d used legally to reduce the effects of chemotherapy. Working with Don Duncan of Americans for Safe Access, she helped pass California’s Assembly Bill 258, which ended the practice of rejecting patients for organ transplants if they use cannabis.



Born in Costa Rica and raised in America, Yami Bolanos purges marijuana-related prejudices among Latinos

On the day Yami Bolanos opened PureLife Alternative Wellness Center in Los Angeles in 2006, she stopped at the front door and said a prayer.

“I looked up at the skies and said to my parents, ‘I’m sorry you don’t approve, but I don’t believe I am doing anything wrong. Please protect me from where you’re at.’”

Bolanos says if her parents had been alive, she probably wouldn’t have opened the dispensary.

A few years ago, an aunt in Costa Rica saw Bolanos on the news. Her aunt “couldn’t believe that her brother and her sister-in-law made all those sacrifices to bring us to the U.S. for a better life, and now I was in the streets selling marijuana,” Bolanos recalls. “What a disappointment I was!”

Beyond the usual struggles of being an entrepreneur in an emerging field — particularly in Los Angeles, with its contradictory regulations for cannabis businesses — Bolanos had been perpetually taught that people who sold and smoked marijuana were bad.

“I’m going against the grain, against all the messages that were given to me as a Latina about marijuana,” she says.

The pot prejudice goes way back; Bolanos remembers an uncle who built a school in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border. She thought he was the model of an upstanding citizen.

“My mother used to tell my sister and I when we went back to Costa Rica that we were not to go near (my uncle) because he smoked pot,” Bolanos says. “That’s the kind of prejudice you deal with in Latin America.”

Now that Bolanos has succeeded as a cannabis business owner, she’s turning her attention to dispelling the prejudice and fear in Latino communities and helping Latinos and women understand that they have nothing to fear from entering the cannabis industry.

That’s a difficult sell, especially when Latinos — and all people of color — have been justifiably cautious of law enforcement for decades.

Overcoming the stigma

Throughout the history of the War on Drugs, communities of color have been targeted disproportionately for arrest, including in states where marijuana is legal for either medical or recreational use.

Research by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that while the majority of marijuana users are white, African-Americans and Latinos are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.

In 2014, almost half of all drug arrests across the country were marijuana-related, and 88% were only for possession.

Attorney and entrepreneur Lauren Vazquez says many of her clients are young Latino men who were stopped illegally and arrested for marijuana, often because the police trap them into answering questions they don’t have to answer.

“Recently a young man was stopped with his brother, and police asked if they were patients and if they grew, and they said yes,” Vazquez recalls. “The police said they needed to go to the brothers’ house and inspect the plants, which is not true, but the men didn’t know their rights. You don’t have to take the police to your house. The police thought 10 plants were questionable, and they arrested the men and decided to let the lawyers sort it out.”

Black Americans are well-acquainted with the danger they face in being profiled for drug use, according to Dr. Lakisha Jenkins, founder and CEO of the Kiona T. Jenkins Foundation of Natural Health. Jenkins is an advocate not only for marijuana legalization, but for changing attitudes and regulations for all herbal remedies. She says the stigma associated with marijuana prevents most Americans of color from even thinking about entering the cannabis industry.

“There’s absolutely a self-selection going on,” Jenkins says. “There is a stigma in many of these communities that even when it’s a legitimate business, friends and family and the church will say, ‘Oh, you just want to be a drug dealer.’”

There is another aspect of cannabis that afflicts many American Latinos, something that other people of color don’t have: the bloody drug war in Latin America.

“Every Latino in Los Angeles with family (in Central America) knows someone who has been killed or jailed or disappeared because of the drug war,” Bolanos says. “All that killing and violence and all that injustice in Central America and Mexico is attached to marijuana. The War on Drugs put the icing on the cake.”

Bolanos, who was born in Costa Rica and immigrated to Southern California with her parents at the age of 2, believed everything she was taught about cannabis until she was almost 50 years old. That changed when, as she says, marijuana saved her life.

A medical necessity

Yami Bolanos had a liver transplant in 1996 that left her writhing in her bed with abdominal pain for years. It also led Bolanos to smoke her first joint.

“I was a prisoner of my own home, and every medication I took had a severe counter-reaction,” she says. “One day a friend said, ‘Smoke a joint.’ I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to break the law and I don’t want to be one of those people.’

“My friend insisted and I tried it. That joint I smoked was the first time I had any comfort since I had the transplant.”

But Bolanos’ ingrained conceptions about the kind of people who smoke marijuana — lazy, bad people, according to her family — had to go out the window. And they did. But most of the dispensaries at the time were not designed for middle-aged clientele. Bolanos says many budtenders at the time had facial piercings and tattoos.

“They were nice people, but it didn’t feel right to me,” she says. “When I would ask, ‘What’s good for a stomach ache?’ they would say, ‘This is dank.’ I’m like, ‘What does dank mean? I’m in pain, dude.’”

Within six months she had opened her own dispensary, focusing on the variety of medical uses for different cannabis strains.

Bolanos encouraged an older crowd to visit her dispensary for thorough explanations of the different products. Now, with a steady stream of regular customers, she’s able to spend more time as an activist.

“I want my people to know the things I know,” she says. “How many people out there like me are suffering when they don’t have to suffer? How many refuse to use (cannabis) because they’re afraid or can’t use it legally? God put this plant here for us to use.”

A few months after opening PureLife, Bolanos started the Greater Los Angeles Collective Association (GLACA), a group that aims to protect patients and the cannabis community, while educating people about medical marijuana. Bolanos wants to bring more women and Latinos into the GLACA family. Right now there are only four Latino business owners in the organization, including Bolanos.

“It’s changing a little,” she says. “Women and minorities used to be non-existent in the industry. Now there are some, but there should be more Latinos. There should be more blacks. But this is still a white man’s game. The jails are full of blacks and Latinos, but there are white men getting rich selling pot.”

Changing the rules

Bolanos says she was enraged and horrified when an acquaintance died after being denied a liver transplant because he tested positive for marijuana he’d used legally to reduce the effects of chemotherapy. Working with Don Duncan of Americans for Safe Access, she helped pass California’s Assembly Bill 258, which ended the practice of rejecting patients for organ transplants if they use cannabis.

Bolanos points out that while medical marijuana is legal in 25 states, only seven have protections for transplant patients. She says she wants to carry the message to other states and help save more lives.

Closer to home, Bolanos is lobbying for lawmakers to fix the patchwork of medical marijuana restrictions in Los Angeles County.

She points to the problems of Prop D, a 2013 voter-approved initiative that was meant to give 135 Los Angeles marijuana dispensaries and their customers some freedom from law enforcement. The fine print of the law is problematic, because it doesn’t legalize or permit cannabis collectives, and marijuana delivery is illegal unless done by a patient’s primary caregiver.

Bolanos says a bill that Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer has submitted in the California House of Representatives could give dispensaries a permit this year.

“I’m all for total legalization (of cannabis), but the state needs to fix medical marijuana right here first,” she says.

Fixing laws is one thing. But Bolanos has found that the bigger challenge is fighting perceptions about marijuana in Southern California’s Latino communities.

She recalls a presentation she gave last year when she testified for a dispensary that was opening in San Ysidro, just north of the Mexican border.

“There was a group of Mexican women living in that neighborhood who didn’t want that in their neighborhood,” Bolanos says. “They didn’t care that marijuana was medicine. All they cared was that their kid or nephew had been killed or disappeared because of marijuana.”

Bolanos’ solution was to create a presentation that didn’t use pictures of people smoking marijuana. Instead she used images of creams, sprays, candies and tinctures. She told people that those products came from the cannabis plant, and that everything was packaged like medicine.

More recently, Bolanos started an outreach program in conjunction with Americans for Safe Access. The 45-minute program is designed to educate the Latino community about cannabis as medicine.

“We don’t advocate for them to smoke,” she says. “We just explain the different medicines that come from the marijuana plant.”

As for her family, they’re coming around. Her daughter, now 33, is a passionate advocate of her work. Her relatives in Costa Rica stopped giving her the cold shoulder after Dr. Sanjay Gupta began talking about the medicinal aspects of cannabis on CNN.

“After I opened my store, when I went to family reunions, the older family members used to say just a few words to me and walk away,” she says. “I guess they were afraid I would sell them pot. After Sanjay Gupta came out in favor of medical marijuana, now older (relatives) call me in the corner and ask about sprays and creams for their arthritis.”