Despite the fact that he doesn't do drugs, ColinResponse says on a weekly basis he gets harassed by people, "usually just white dudes," who assume he's selling them.
As a black Toronto musician who is six-foot-two and has dreadlocks, ColinResponse (his stage name) told VICE he's so used to being asked for drugs, primarily weed, that he once had a button made that said "NO, I don't know where you can get weed."
While out for drinks at a bar on in the city's west end one night, Colin said he was approached by a random who "asked me for a drug I don't even know the name of. I was like 'Sorry dude, I don't have anything.' And then he looks at me like it's his Plan B, he's just like 'weed?'"
Colin was born in Toronto and grew up in Brampton. He's had dreads for about nine years and in that time, he said he's grown accustomed to being mistaken for a drug dealer—on average it happens three times a week. At first, he assumed this was a normal thing that everyone experienced once in a while, but, as the frequency increased, he realized as a "black dude with dreadlocks carrying around a guitar," he was probably being singled out.
"I started to be like 'Wait a second. There is no fucking way everybody is casually asking people for weed all the time,'" he told VICE.
Colin isn't alone in his experiences. And while he's a good sport about it, this type of stereotyping comes in the context of a society where police disproportionately card and arrest black people for drug crimes.
Just last month, the Toronto Star published a decade of data showing black people with clean records are three times as likely to get charged with low-level possession of cannabis (up to 30 grams) than white people with clean records. It also found that black people—and especially children—are much more likely than any other racial group to be detained while awaiting bail.
"I always say that (weed) is legalized for a lot of white people—it's been legal," said Terry Roswell, a criminology and sociology professor at Ryerson University, who has had dreadlocks for 12 years.
Roswell said he also gets asked if he sells weed.
"The joke I probably make in class is 'people probably assume that I'm a drug dealer before a professor,'" he said, adding, "we're downtown right, so it could be random people walking around the campus, it could be students, or I've even had faculty members make comments around drugs that I felt were inappropriate."
For Colin, the misguided queries were at an all-time high when he was attending Humber College to pursue his music degree.
"It was like every fucking day of the week," he said.
That's when he had the button made; he pinned it to his backpack and would flash it to people who asked if he was holding. Colin said he also gets asked for cocaine, Xanax, and other party drugs. The irony, he said, is he doesn't use any drugs—he doesn't even blaze and, in addition to playing music, is a personal trainer.
But he said he's often at parties or concerts which, sadly, increases the chances of getting taken for a drug dealer. His responses vary, he said, but are generally good-humoured.
"I feel like I'm super chill about it just because people are going to keep approaching me so I can either laugh about it or be pissed every single time." Sometimes, he noted, like when drunks approach him at parties and start speaking in a Jamaican accent (Colin has never been there) or raving about Bob Marley, it can even be entertaining.
"It's always a drunk white guy that feels like he's making me feel included."
Pharmacy supervisor Shavon Cornelius, 29, who grew up and lives in Brampton, said he first got pegged as a drug dealer when was just 14 and heading home from a basketball game.
"I was kind of just wandering around the bus terminal waiting for the bus to come and some sketchy looking guy came up to me and asked me if I could sell him drugs," he said.
At the time his hair was braided—he now has dreads.
"Why would you just assume that a young black kid at the bus (stop) at eight o'clock at night has drugs on him?"
Cornelius told VICE as an adult, getting requests for drugs is a "fairly frequent occurrence" for him, and he believes it's a type of racial profiling.
"I don't assume they would go to a soccer mom looking person. I feel as if they saw both of us, they would come to me."
While it sounds like a fucking nuisance to say the least, Cornelius said he's more concerned about more serious forms of racial profiling. He recalled being stopped arbitrarily by police on several occasions—including one time just seconds after he left a rental car shop—only to be told "you're free to go" as soon as the officer looked at his license.
"It's abuse on the part of authority and that's one of the things that kind of grinds my gears."
Roswell told VICE it's unlikely that white people with dreads deal with the same types of experiences and that they will internalize those experiences differently. Even though he smokes weed, said he would never do so in public, regardless of legalization, because of the tendency to associate weed and dreads with laziness and criminality.
"There are a lot of times I'm walking up and down Yonge (street) or even on campus and I'll smell marijuana and there's a part of my brain that gets pissed off because I assume anybody that's walking by, I'm the first person they're looking at," he said.
He said his responses in being solicited for drugs changes depending on the person, but generally he tries to point out the hypocrisy of the person asking.
"My comment is 'Why don't you ask somebody that looks like you.' I'm gonna put it back on you."
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