When Gary Chambers lit and smoked a blunt in his campaign ad this January, the cannabis industry snapped to attention. The Senate hopeful cut his spot to 37 seconds, explaining in the video that this represents how often someone is arrested for marijuana possession, and that Black people are four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis-related charges as white people.
“Most of the people police arrest aren’t dealers, but rather people with small amounts of pot, like me,” Chambers intoned.
Watch the viral campaign ad:
A Grassroots Candidate: Gary Chambers Smokes a Blunt in His Senate Campaign Ad
It didn’t take long for the ad to spark notice. Within twenty-four hours, the video went viral, sparking headlines in national media outlets and making the rounds of late-night television. But it was Chambers’ sincerity that caught the eye of cannabis industry professionals particularly, as well as the fact that he’s running as an underdog in Louisiana to unseat long-entrenched Republican candidate John Kennedy. Add to this that if he wins, Chambers will be the first Black person to hold statewide office in Louisiana since 1872, and you have the makings of a genuine grassroots hero.
“His mission in life is to do good and seek justice,” said Montel Williams when he hosted Chambers on his cannabis-themed show Let’s Be Blunt with Montel. It’s clear other cannabis leaders feel the same way; groups like Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM) and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) rushed to learn as much about the candidate as they could. And as Chambers has continued his campaign tour, he’s made special efforts to connect with cannabis and hemp businesses, and industry voices such as Tahir Johnson, Director of Social Equity and Inclusion for the U.S. Cannabis Council and Marijuana Policy Project, and Mehka King, founder of Cash Color Cannabis and Urban Grow Media.
“He shook the room when he made that [cannabis] video,” King commented after interviewing Chambers in Atlanta. “What he did was remind people of what their fears were – that the cannabis user is him, that the person you’re going to be looking for is a big Black dude. It’s always going to be that kind of connotation. So he definitely shook the room and I loved it because [he] started that conversation up. What’s happening in the South is not going anywhere anytime soon. We’re watching states in the East Coast, West Coast and Midwest pass laws legalizing cannabis use left and right, where people in the South are still debating whether or not this is even worth having a conversation. And it’s primarily because of the image they’ve been selling you of who the cannabis consumer is and why this is a negative. I like the fact that [Chambers] used his own image as a way to battle against that.”
"Scars and Bars": Gary Chambers Burns the Confederate Flag in His Campaign Ad
In February, Chambers released his second ad, “Scars and Bars,” in which he set a Confederate flag on fire while sharing facts about the continued presence of Jim Crow policy in Louisiana. The ad was part of a response to the state legislature’s special session just days earlier in which Republican lawmakers announced a redistricting plan that would fragment neighboring areas – predominantly affecting the voting power of Black communities in those districts.
“Gerrymandered districts are a byproduct of the Confederacy,” Chambers stated in his video, as he listed off more statistics about inequity for Black citizens. The ad ended with his declaration that “the South will rise again, but this time, it’ll be on our terms.”
Though political experts and analysts note that Chambers’ chances of winning against Kennedy are a long shot, that hasn’t stopped him from inspiring hope in audiences everywhere. According to King, “I love how he’s actually running his campaign. It’s very creative and it’s one of those things that definitely draws in voters. We’re at a point now where younger people are shying away from voting [and some] older hardcore voters are being phased out… But I feel like he’s the type of person who could really energize a new crowd of people to get involved in voting and really want to know what a Senator does, what a Congressperson does. He did that perfectly. I think he’s created a kind of energy that’s going to make people who didn’t think about voting before, interested in voting now.”
Watch the "Scars and Bars" campaign ad:
The Origins of Gary Chambers: Early Life in Louisiana and First Time Going Viral
Chambers seems to have been on a lifelong trajectory to public office. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he believes his attunement to justice was shaped by his father, who came of age during the Civil Rights movement, and his mother, who he says often cried out in prayer for people in pain. While Chambers’ mother died from suicide while her son was an infant, her sensitivity to the suffering of others clearly remains strong in the candidate today.
An ordained minister, Chambers has dedicated himself to the citizens of Louisiana in multiple ways over the years. Living briefly in New Orleans to help with economic restorative efforts after Hurricane Katrina, he then returned to Baton Rouge in his early twenties to open a business. In 2012, he launched the publication The Rouge Collection, focusing on Black communities in Baton Rouge, eventually becoming known as an outspoken civil rights activist. Through intervening years, he would host Town Halls on themes such as Trayvon Martin and pervading racism, lead movements drawing attention to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Lamar Johnson in police custody, and assume a position as a public advocate on local school boards.
A June 2020 school board meeting gave Chambers one of his first national spotlight moments. The purpose of the meeting was to debate renaming a district high school that had been named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee. At the debate’s public comment session, Chambers displayed a photograph of one school board member shopping online during the meeting, asserting that the board didn’t care about racial justice. A video clip of his testimony received millions of views online.
Following this and other public efforts to remove symbols of the Confederacy, Chambers was encouraged by Real Justice PAC founder Shaun King to run for office. He campaigned in Louisiana’s 2021 special election to determine who would take the vacant seat left by Congressman Cedric Richmond when the latter became Director of the Office of Public Liaison and a senior advisor to President Biden. Though Chambers ran on a progressive platform that included Medicare for all, support for the Green New Deal, a universal basic income and other issues, he was unsuccessful in his bid for the seat. However, Chambers told Montel Williams that he only lost his place in the special election runoff by 1550 votes, “less than a percentage of 1 point.”
Gary Chambers for Congress: Can He Win in 2022?
So can Chambers win the Senate race against Kennedy? Mary Pryor, co-founder of the cannabis collective Cannaclusive and a nationally renowned social equity leader, takes an analytical view to the question based on her years of experience as a political strategist.
“I think him [highlighting cannabis and inequity] is important,” she says, “but I think what’s more important is him being positioned to win. That’s going to take a lot of money for Louisiana. When I look at his record, he’s run races and lost them… I don't think people really understand how government operates in the South and the reality of Louisiana. I'm glad that people want to utilize him, talk about what's going on with cannabis, but people [should be] making sure that he's able to raise a million dollars every month to aggressively go for a state that has a huge racial issue and a huge disparity issue, especially considering that he's running in a place that doesn't really give Black folks in leadership desirable places or a fair shake. So for anyone who's trying to utilize a politician or a potential political hopeful, especially someone Black, they need to have a good idea of how to help him fundraise a million dollars a month, because it's going to take that plus a real look at the racial underpinnings of how government doesn't work in this regard.”
Mehka King agrees that Chambers faces an uphill battle, but feels optimism and authenticity could lead him to victory. “This is not his first time running. This is not even his first time going viral. He has to overcome voter fatigue… but you’ve got to give him credit for what he’s doing with the videos. You’re now engaging a group of people who never voted before, 18, 19, 20 year-olds… You have to do things that capture people’s attention immediately, and he did that.”
As for the support from the cannabis industry, Pryor is skeptical about its effectiveness. “I’m not in the mind of utilizing another Black person, because I know what it is to be used by the industry. If I don’t also have a way for them to win outside of being someone I feature on a Live or a YouTube channel, [there’s] no way to know that this is going to help them raise a million dollars… Everybody wants to utilize him to talk about these things, that’s great. But he hasn’t won a race yet. Strategy-wise, it’s not just getting cannabis people to give you money. I don’t know if the industry’s [generating what he needs] and I don’t know who is going to do that in the industry, but that needs to be something that is done only with industry dollars, from cannabis alone. Everything else that needs to be done to be able to win this race needs to be from outside industries that are not cannabis related. There needs to be a focus for that. But if he's going to lean on the cannabis industry, then the cannabis industry needs to be helping him raise a million dollars a month to be able to beat [Kennedy].”
King admits that he wanted to do extensive research into Chambers before endorsing him in any way. “I wanted to make sure he was fully involved as a politician and not just trying to position [himself] as VP of a cannabis company, you know? [But] when I met him, I thought he was very genuine. I thought he was very much understanding of the power that comes with the position he’s running for and that he fully understood [the concept that] you’re now responsible for groups of people… We need new blood in the Senate [and] House of Representatives. I was proud his campaign wasn’t based solely around cannabis. Tell me what you’re going to do for small business, for agriculture… He could speak to that.”
“It’s going to be a tricky midterms in general,” Pryor concludes. “Right now I’m concerned for Democrats across the board. Cannabis hasn’t gotten us far with these bills, at least with certain people. The Safe Banking bill is the most anti-equity bill out there… I don’t support any bill that shuts out Black people. Overall when it comes to midterms, if Black voters are feeling less respected and the current government isn’t able to fix that right now, that’s the biggest issue I see… We’re going to have to be sorting through an inconvenient truth behind the government and its ‘responsibilities’ to marginalized communities, including women… There’s a lot going on outside of thinking about cannabis.”
For his part, King encourages voters to do their own research into candidates, but also emphasizes future-oriented thinking: “When you think about voting, understand that you’re voting for someone who is younger than eight years old… This [candidate] is going to affect that person. The vote I’m putting out here is not necessarily for me. It is, but as long as this person is in office, it’s going to affect somebody right behind me.”
What Are Cannabis Industry Leaders Saying About Gary Chambers?
Whatever the outcome of his Senate race, Gary Chambers has certainly created excitement among cannabis leaders.
Tahir Johnson, Director of Social Equity and Inclusion, U.S. Cannabis Council and Marijuana Policy Project
“I was so excited to see Gary Chambers’ bold campaign ad. We're at a point in time where data shows that most voters are in support of cannabis legalization, so it's great to see someone take ownership of the issue as a pillar of their agenda right out of the gate. We need people like him in Washington that will pledge to end cannabis prohibition and reverse the disproportionate harm that it has caused to communities of color in Louisiana and around the country.”
Dasheeda Dawson, Cannabis Program Manager for the City of Portland’s Office of Civic and Community Life
"Gary Chambers Jr’s cannabis campaign ad is provocative and compelling because he’s based in Louisiana, a state that is still arresting people for cannabis use while also expanding its medical cannabis program to include cannabis flower. The state has generated new revenue but still fails to do the work to destigmatize consumption, especially for people of color who have been disproportionately targeted for cannabis criminalization. Chambers' video highlights the urgency and hypocrisy around legislators voting on behalf of medical cannabis use while still arresting people for possession. Winning a U.S. Senate seat would signal a sea change from elected officials supporting legalization only for medicine or social justice in theory to supporting legalization as consumers."
Dr. Chanda Macias, CEO, Ilera Holistic and CEO/Chairwoman of the Board, Women Grow
“Decriminalization and prison reform are at the very heart of social justice in cannabis. I am in full support of candidates for state or national office putting the issue at the forefront of their platforms. In Louisiana for example, cannabis possession remained a criminal offense for more than a year after our state’s medical cannabis program was already up and running, which led to thousands of Louisianans, and disproportionately Black men, being incarcerated for small amounts of cannabis. These efforts at cannabis and prison reform are essential in ending the pipeline that turns cannabis patients into prisoners and results in disenfranchising whole communities for generations.”
Roz McCarthy, founder/CEO, Black Buddha Cannabis and founder/CEO, Minorities for Medical Marijuana
“I never thought I would see the day when an elected official or someone running for a public office would come out in such a healthy manner to talk about cannabis and social and criminal justice reform. Making known his cannabis use in such a public way was groundbreaking. I think supporting people like Gary and his mission to normalize how we look at cannabis and its use is so incredibly important. I'm hoping his position will spark more conversation on the importance of legalization and policy-making at the federal level.”
What's Next for Gary Chambers? The National Cannabis Policy Summit and National Cannabis Festival 2022
You can see Gary Chambers speaking live on Friday, April 22, 2022 at the National Cannabis Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. at The Amphitheater in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. This long-running political forum is an integral part of the National Cannabis Festival. It brings together diverse panelists for action-oriented dialogues around the most pressing issues surrounding legalization. Past summits have featured politicians from the federal, state and local levels; top cannabis entrepreneurs and advocates; medical experts, and many more.
Chambers will speak at this year's National Cannabis Policy Summit alongside such figures as:
Barbara Lee, U.S. Representative (D-CA) and co-chair of the House Cannabis Caucus
Nancy Mace, U.S. Representative (R-SC) and sponsor of the States Reform Act to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act
Dasheeda Dawson, Cannabis Program Manager for the City of Portland
Grover Norquist, President, Americans for Tax Reform
Additionally, you will be able to find Chambers fundraising at the National Cannabis Festival throughout the 4/23-4/24 weekend. For more information about NCF, visit nationalcannabisfestival.com. And check out Honeysuckle's National Cannabis Festival Printed Program Guide featuring Wiz Khalifa while you're there. Get ready for some sexy designs!
We at Honeysuckle can’t wait to see what happens next with Gary Chambers’ candidacy! Stay tuned for updates on his Senate campaign and visit chambersforlouisiana.com for more information.
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A version of this article first appeared in Honeysuckle's 420 print edition, featuring Lil Wayne and Young Money. Get your copy now.