TBT News—Marijuana is no longer a ‘dirty little secret.’ Weed sales are soaring in Illinois, and the pandemic is helping. But it’s absolutely true when the world reports that Illinois and Chicago are the most racist state and city in America. And to prove it, the weed game or lack of it for minorities has been a big fat zero. There are other states and cities where Black folks are flourishing with their weed game. But in Chicago Black entrepreneurs struggle to join the legal weed industry.

Many African Americans are concerned that a lack of access to capital and systematic economic racism will exclude them from the burgeoning marijuana business. Now that corporate interests and large investors have targeted the mushrooming marijuana industry, some African Americans wonder if racial inequities will prevent them from participating in the leafy economic boom.

Since 2014, when Colorado opened the first regulated weed market, at least 11 states (Illinois being the latest) and the District of Columbia have jumped on the recreational bandwagon, ostensibly to ease access to medicinal marijuana, but also grab a share of the estimated $40 billion, legal and illegal, cannabis market. There are 33 states and D.C. where medicinal marijuana is legal, and there are estimates that 55 million Americans regularly use marijuana.

But despite these developments, many African Americans across the country are concerned that a lack of access to capital and systematic economic racism will exclude them from the burgeoning marijuana business the way they’ve been excluded from other business opportunities in the past. “One of the things that we have definitely learned since the establishment of equity is that a license doesn’t go as far as need be,” said Jacob Plowden, co-founder and deputy director of the Cannabis Cultural Association, a New York-based nonprofit that helps “marginalized and underrepresented communities” compete in the legal cannabis industry.

The numbers are disturbing. Less than a fifth of the people involved at an ownership or stake-holder level were people of color, a 2017 survey found; Black people made up only 4.3 percent. New Jersey has proposed a bill mandating that 25 percent of all legal licenses be set aside for people of color; Black legislators in New York emphatically said they will not vote for any legislation that doesn’t redirect some profits from legalization to communities of color, and Massachusetts added social equity programs to their legalization efforts.

Many African Americans are feeling locked out of the process. “It’s not just equity in terms of ownership but equity in terms of the supply chain, so looking at things like ancillary businesses like hemp, like media, like law, like marketing, like compliance. Those are the other structures in which we kind of see legalization taking place,” Plowden said. “And if you don’t have a huge $100 million investment to do a cultivation or a cannabis grow, there are other spaces especially for us, because we know when licenses go out, we know who’s getting displaced — us.”

Beyond that last barrier, there is also no national uniform legal code to ensure that there is social equity in the market, but some communities, joining pioneers such as Oakland, California, have decided to implement their own laws and rules to address it. The Chicago suburb of Evanston recently voted in to tax the sale of weed and use the proceeds to fund race-based Reparations for Black residents. But after more than a year into the legal recreational marijuana industry in Illinois, a glaring omission remains among minority-owned businesses.

When Governor JB Pritzker and Springfield legislators pushed for recreational use of cannabis, they said they were doing so with an eye towards equity. Dispensaries opened statewide on Jan. 1, 2020. Yet, 15 months later, no minority-owned cannabis businesses operate in the state. Illinois’ cannabis business accounted for $1 billion in sales in its first year of legality. However, social equity remains a work in progress. “You can’t say you’re about equity and leaving those women and men out in these communities outside looking in,” Tyrone Muhammad said at a press conference.

With the state running almost a year behind issuing new licenses, minority investors and activists have turned up the heat on the Pritzker administration. “We joined forces with each other and with the advocacy community to ensure that others that have rightfully earned their seat at the table can get their piece of the pie and eat,” Kiana Hughes, who represents The Six, a group of six Black and Brown owned businesses. “As The Six, it’s not enough for us to be in a position and have an opportunity to eat,” Hughes said. “We want everybody to be able to each.”

In 2019, lawmakers passed the cannabis law to help communities impacted by the war on drugs. The state planned to issue 75 licenses before May of last year. But the Pritzker administration delayed the process, citing the pandemic. Last September, 21 social equity applicants were added to the lottery for the 75 licenses. After various groups complained, the state provided entrepreneurs with a second chance. Hopeful minority owners revised their applications. Now, state officials are reviewing the paperwork and more social equity applicants may be added to the lottery. Amidst the wait, several cannabis clean-up bills are moving in Springfield.

State Representative La Shawn Ford presented legislation that would allow for more licenses. “The truth is, the only way you can fix a problem is to recognize that there is a problem, admit there’s a problem and begin to work on it,” Ford said. The various stakeholders continue to wait for the state lottery to issue more licenses. But some activists say they won’t move forward until more minorities become part of the process. In a statement to WGN News, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pritzker says, “The Pritzker administration remains committed to issuing licenses and developing an adult-use cannabis industry in a fair, equitable manner.”

Let’s not forget the city of Chicago in which the City Council’s Black Caucus including members Maria Hadden, Jeanette Taylor, and Anthony Beale proposed zoning rules for legal cannabis dispensaries that could prevent sales up until last July 1st, 2020. Aldermen were set to vote on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed zoning rules, but Black Caucus members refused to go along with the plan, setting off a flurry of furious negotiations that went well into the evening.

“At the end of the day, there’s nothing in this ordinance that will help make sure the black and brown community will be able to get part of these dispensaries, whether it be medical marijuana or recreational marijuana,” Beale said. “We’re still being locked out, and there’s no path to making sure our communities are represented in order to obtain these licenses.”

Lightfoot’s original proposal included a loophole that would allow existing medical dispensaries to be able to immediately pivot to legal recreational sales without first abiding by the new zoning rules. There was also contention around stores not being allowed downtown, as some council members feel that it wouldn’t be as lucrative of a move to legalize without that area. Lightfoot said the expected $10 million annually in tax revenue would be a drop in the bucket for the $838 million already missing in the city’s budget.

In a press release minutes after the hours-long meeting concluded, Caucus chair Jason Ervin, 28th, said under the current plan, “there will undoubtedly be economic loss and opportunities for African Americans. There is currently zero African American participation among the 11 existing dispensaries—who will get the first shot at the market during the first year of legalization.”

“Ultimately our push is that the black community have a decent shot at ownership in this business,” Ervin told reporters after the meeting. “Right now, we do not agree with the 11 current dispensaries being given carte blanche day one. . . .We would like to see equity in the process where people across all walks have an opportunity to participate on a level playing field.”

Mayor Lightfoot told dissenters at a press conference that the way to promote equity was “through Springfield, through legislation,” and said she was not “sure where they were during the spring session” when the bill was being debated. “We need to get this done,” she said she told them of the zoning ordinance, and the pathway to further equity is not to “kill it in Chicago.” – MG Media


Black Entrepreneurs Are ‘Going Green’ With Cannabis Companies: The marijuana industry is booming, and the resulting surge has also seen more Black-owned cannabis companies sprouting up in recent years. Though lack of diversity remains a serious problem in the field, companies like San Francisco’s MD Numbers provide some much-needed representation. These Black entrepreneurs and others hope to write a new chapter in the story of America’s “war on drugs,” which has disproportionately punished people of color. – JON JACKSON



This article was first published by TBT News