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Chicago’s Black community deserves an equity-first legalized marijuana policy

Illinois

Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 12/20/2018, 12:39 p.m.
Illinois needs a policy that ensures that people in low-income, disenfranchised communities have an..

Illinois needs a policy that ensures that people in low-income, disenfranchised communities have an opportunity to participate in the legal distribution of cannabis and benefit financially from legalizing cannabis, writes Richard Wallace of Crain's Chicago Business.

The prohibition of marijuana is nearing an end in Illinois, and the state is poised to become the next big market in the $8 billion cannabis industry. But will Illinois’ Black communities see any of the financial benefits — especially Chicago’s Black neighborhoods that have been ravaged by the war on drugs? Illinois Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker will make good on his election promise to legalize cannabis, pending a vote in the General Assembly early next year. But the bigger question is whether the new governor will do right by Blacks in Chicago and other parts of the state.

Will he exclude Blacks from staking their claim in the industry — often reserved for and dominated by a white, privileged and well-financed group? Or, will he develop a comprehensive plan to ensure Black ownership of cannabis stores and job opportunities in this new economy? Historically, informal jobs that once existed under prohibition tend to lack an equitable transition to Black ownership in a formal, legalized economy, Wallace says. Take alcohol prohibition. Although bootlegging alcohol was illegal during the 13 years of prohibition in Chicago, it was one of the few professions in the 1920s that was open to all races, much like the informal cannabis market is today. Yet today, only 5 percent of the wineries in the U.S. are Black owned.

Today, the legal marijuana industry is estimated to be worth more than $9 billion, reaching $23 billion in a few short years. Yet, only 4.3 percent of all cannabis businesses in the U.S. are owned or founded by Black individuals. This shouldn’t be the case in Chicago — a city with one of the highest rates of Black unemployment and the greatest racial wealth gaps in the nation. This is a city where there are communities such as West Garfield Park, where 81 percent of young Black men are unemployed. History shouldn’t be repeated by excluding Blacks from participation in the economic boom of legalized cannabis the same way that they were excluded from benefiting from the end of prohibition.

Pritzker has the chance to become one of the first U.S. governors to set micro-reparations for in-state Blacks due to the harms their communities experienced through the war on drugs. So now is the time to organize for workers’ rights and negotiate terms of what Black ownership in the marijuana industry looks like. Illinois needs an Equity First Cannabis legalization policy, one that ensures that individuals in low-income, disenfranchised communities have an opportunity to participate in the legal distribution of cannabis and benefit financially from legalizing cannabis.

Wallace says that the state’s legislators must commit to retaining 30 percent of all Chicago cannabis dispensary licenses for Black owners, since Blacks make up 30 percent of the city’s population. Legislators must implement a sliding-scale dispensary licensing fee system and allocate resources for training on cannabis cultivation and infusion. Placing equity first should be Governor Pritzker’s commitment to right the wrongs of the war on drugs and bring about a new era of racial equity in the state of Illinois.