Lozelle King on Homegrown Happiness
By Derek Chartrand Wallace
King is a fixture at the Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley (CBCB), but this medicine man is also an artist and raconteur. Photo courtesy of Derek Chartrand Wallace
It’s one week before 4/20—the largest counterculture holiday in North America that celebrates the consumption of the devil’s lettuce in all its varied forms. If he’s stressing about it, you can’t tell from Lozelle King’s demeanor. Through shafts of setting sunlight slicing between trees lining the neighborhood, we walk to his nearby art studio. In just a couple of streets he has already been greeted by half a dozen grateful neighbors. It’s the Berkeley I heard about in my childhood, the golden pot at the end of the tie-dye rainbow. We take time to “get in the zone,” but not for fun and games (that always happens when you spend time with Lo because he’s a naturally funny guy)—because what I don’t realize until later, is that he is mentally preparing me for what’s to come, as he is about to drop some serious words of wisdom, and that is one cold pool you don’t just cannonball into. I lament the state of tensions in the country and how we couldn’t do this interview at a local park on a swing set without being hassled by someone. With a precautionary scan of the area before heading inside, King agrees. “I don’t like to being outside because there is always an opportunity for me to be cornered by police. That’s what this is about…”
He swings open the door to his art-house like Bruce Wayne revealing the Batcave. It’s the kind of place you might not notice, subtle and sly and nondescript. You can get work done here, but also hide in plain sight. It reminds me of a recent story about a puma in Mountain View that took cover in some bushes along a busy downtown street as people passed by obliviously just a few feet away. “My little shop,” he grins. “It ain’t much, but it’s a start.” In addition to using the space for creative writing and making t-shirts to sell, he also stores art that he creates and collects. One piece is a painting of Jay-Z’s album cover for “Reasonable Doubt,” which I instantly know will be the backdrop for a future photo shoot.
I suggest we start our chat with a talk about fashion. “Chuck Taylors,” he says with conviction bordering on an edict. “I’m not spending no hundred and—I get why my grandmother was serious about shoes.” He indicates the kicks on his feet, “Chuck’s? That’s what a tennis shoe is supposed to be. Thirty, forty bucks tops. Why you paying two-hundred dollars for shoes and you ain’t even on the team? You ain’t even playing basketball!”
He talks about his love of handmade products, from clothing to food, and I suddenly never missed my family so much as in that moment. Both King and I used to live in Georgia, but it doesn’t take long to find that we had much different experiences in the land of the peaches.
“Growing up, most of my classroom was white. But we also had a good amount of black kids. A lot of those black kids would tease me sometimes. The mentality’s crazy down South. Ya know why? It’s that ‘paper bag’ complexion thing. You’re light-skinned like me? I’m a man to listen to. Why? Because I’m light. Oh my god, don’t let me throw no glasses on. I could be in a room of established, well-educated men and they’ll be like ‘All you darkies shut up!'”
We share a laugh, but a cloud of somberness passes across his face. “It becomes an insult, though. My whole life, growing up, darker kids would try me. ‘What you say, boy?’ thinking I’m weak because I’m white. Nah, I’m a bit crazy. It didn’t work that way with me. But it insulted me.”
“Did I ever tell you I almost got lynched at eleven years old? I was at a football game with my friends and my brother didn’t come pick me up, me and my friends Travis and Dee Anthony Morgan. Dee Anthony was maybe thirteen, his brother was eleven; we were the same age. So we let everybody leave, but there was a truck circling the school. ‘Hey you n—s!’ I’m like, what the hell? I’m not used to this kind of shit, none of us are used to it—you don’t never get used to this kind of shit. So they go around again. It’s a big block. The third time, Dee Anthony said, ‘Listen y’all…when the truck turns the corner this time, we have to run.’ Me, I was chubby.”
He pantomimes breathing heavy and feeling put upon, reaching that point in the storytelling where you shift from past tense to present tense because you are reliving that trauma all over again.
“So as soon as they bend the corner we all strike out. Around the school is white neighborhoods, but before you get to those white neighborhoods is overturned cotton fields. Fresh overturned. Just dirt. We run across this dirt. I don’t know if I fell, if I was just going too slow, but I remember him grabbing me, putting me on his back, a thirteen year-old boy and I’m eleven, and running his ass off, his brother right beside him. Then we got to these ritzy-ass neighborhoods of white people. Then sneaking through there, just tryna make our way home. We end up getting to a phone booth and we call and somebody picked us up from that store. But I never forgot that run. And I never forgot my homey, Dee Anthony.
That’s why my whole life, anything he ever asked me for, I gave him. Cause what thirteen year-old kid thinks like that? He knew more of the threat than we did. That was in 1988. That’s some shit, ain’t it?”
King’s eyes water up as he recounts his harrowing tale. It’s different reading stories of racism and oppression and violence in a Howard Zinn history book than when it comes from the mouth of someone you know and love and admire.
We discuss race relations further, touching upon the media distortions of icons like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Finally, our conversation winds down and as he pauses for a moment to check his cell phone, I ask him his favorite cannabis strain. “OG Kush,” he responds with the same definitiveness as when he told me his favorite shoes. “It just gets you where you need to be. A perfect hybrid.”
Building on this, I pull up my sweater and show him my old work shirt, emblazoned with the logo of the Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley. I ask what that means to him.
“Man, when I started working at CBCB, all I needed was someone to give me a chance, a chance to help people. We all come from parents of the 60s and 70s where what they taught you was fighting ‘The Man.’ One thing I never forgot was that The Man was colorless. Color ain’t got shit to do with The Man, it’s got to do with that big-ass hand of oppression called ‘Government.’ The thing is, we live in a day and age when you can’t stick out and fight. I can’t be in the Black Panthers. I can’t make myself a target like that. That’s reactive. That’s physical activism. You don’t have be so physical to make something happen.”
While I digest this, he taps the logo on my chest, “This is the same thing as being an activist to me: helping people. Doing what they said we couldn’t do. Helping people to consume cannabis. This shit ain’t about getting high. That’s a benefit, I guess, but I view it as a smokescreen from what’s important. That’s why I voted ‘No’ for recreational use. Shit is not a game, it is not a recreational thing. There’s people who need this, man. We live in a country that diagnosed depression as a disease or a disorder. Depression is a damned emotion. Does that mean ‘happiness’ should be diagnosed? Who can tell me I can’t be too happy? The thing about weed? Weed ain’t about to help nobody who is depressed. That’s why that argument was doomed to fail, because it’s a lie. You know what weed is good for? It’s an enhancer. The emotional and psychological effects of weed? It doesn’t turn you from happy to sad. If you’re sad, you’re about to be sadder. If you’re happy, you’re about to laugh uncontrollably. That’s personal, that’s your feeling, your opinion, your experience; that’s a very individual thang.”
But on a collective note, I’ll tell you what it does do: Stops people from having seizures. Helps that man with MS who can’t stand up or reach this way to stretch out.
I am at CBCB for fellowship. I used to love being a budtender. People would come in with migraines and tell me that Death Star was the only strain that took away their headache. Now we have tests and we can compare strains. I tell people treat your weed like Valium. You don’t take Valium if your stomach hurts, do you?”
I think back to all the tinctures, ointments, sprays, rubs, pills, edibles, suppositories, and other non-smokable forms of cannabis we provided for patients. I recall all of the flowers we offered, from sativas to indicas to hybrids and their various effects, be they mental and/or physical. Most of all, I remember fondly what it was like to have been “in the service of the King,” helping him to get medicine to patients during one of the craziest times in human history. We weathered the storm together through Mother’s Day, Fourth of July, Bernie Sanders dropping out of the Presidential race, Election Day, and Christmas. Right up to Trump’s coronation, when tensions rose to near-breaking point as people grew more anxious and race relations simmered to a boil.
Through it all, Lozelle Ibin King remained my friend, confidant, and surrogate older brother. I wish I could find the guys that chased him and his friends through those Georgia cotton fields back in 1988—if only to share some medicine and change their minds. Maybe if they knew the King of Cannabis like I do and saw him as a community-driven man just trying to make the world a better, more loving place, then fellowship could happen.
As we hug good night, I ask if he has a favorite song. King quick-draws his smartphone and starts playing me Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun.” He sings along to emphasize a part that mirrors our recent talk:
“Like a long, lonely stream/ I keep runnin’ towards a dream…That’s my life, man!” he laughs. “Like a branch on a tree/ I keep reachin’ to be free…Like a branch on a tree, man!” he smiles, his free hand stretching up toward the setting California sun.