A Fair Shake: Black and Brown Chicagoans Fight for Equity in Legal Marijuana
EDITOR'S NOTE: "A Fair Shake" is a three-part series on legalized marijuana in black and brown communities in Chicago. This first part takes a look at efforts to break down barriers to ownership within the industry.
In theory, legal possession and use of pot in Illinois could bring balance to the way its policing disproportionately affects black and brown folks. But those communities stand to suffer the same systemic barriers in a recreational system that they already face within the medical one. With the city possibly on the brink of ending its prohibition on cannabis, Chicagoans on the South and West Sides are working to ensure that black and brown communities aren’t left out.
After a March 2018 referendum reflected that 73 percent of Chicago voters were in favor of legalizing its recreational use, voters are poised to see a similar question on the November ballot. Whether recreational weed is legalized or not, it is unclear if the current medical system would continue, since it’s set to expire in 2020.
The Medical Cannabis Pilot Program went into effect in Illinois in 2014 and has since approved 33 thousand qualifying patients. Last year, the pilot program saw about $134 million in sales from dispensaries and cultivation centers, and in just the first two months of 2018, about $28 million.
Naajidaah Jones has worked in the industry for years and is on a mission to make sure black and brown folks get their piece of that pie. She is currently a designated caregiver under the pilot program, and she recently launched a medical marijuana consulting company called Cream of the Crop: Creating Revenue and Economic Advancements for the Melanated. Jones believes Illinois needs both the medical and recreational programs.
According to her, a lot of medical patients are opposed to recreational pot. “They think it's going to take away from the integrity of the program and kind of turn it into a monopoly,” she said. “Although that's a good thing to some … it's not necessarily a grand idea for others.”
Donte Townsend is the director of communications for Chicago NORML, the local chapter of a national marijuana legalization advocacy organization. Their mission is designed to educate communities of color to utilize cannabis for health and economic empowerment. He agrees that the biggest issue facing black and brown folks in the cannabis industry is their lack of ownership.
There are some people of color working to support patients at dispensaries as “budtenders,” as well as in cultivation positions. But Illinois is completely devoid of black and brown dispensary and cultivation center owners. According to Townsend, when you look at where the real money is being made within the billion dollar industry, steep expenses and limited licenses keep already disenfranchised groups out. “In the black and brown communities, we hear about cannabis legalization … but nobody’s thinking about the back end,” he said. “Who’s gonna be getting these jobs, who's gonna be getting these licenses?”
Jones says the program’s requirements have put a wall up for black and brown owners from the start. To own a dispensary here, you have to prove $500 thousand in liquid assets, on top of what she calls an “astronomical amount of money” for the application process. This means anyone with the capital to open a mom-and-pop type business is rejected, while bigger conglomerates thrive.
“We have no way in. And so now even if I wanted ownership, or part ownership, the only way that I have some stake in that is … to become an investor for someone else's dreams, in someone else's business, because I don't have the capital to do that,” she said. “In the wide scheme of things, that is racism. Because why would I not have the same opportunities?”
As of last year, six states with legal weed have passed legislation to encourage black and brown participation in the industry, and to try to compensate for the history of racial disparity in policing. The 2016 ballot question that brought the recreational program to Massachusetts included language to “explicitly encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.”
Even with these initiatives in place, white-owned corporations are still pushing black and brown owners out. Earlier this year, Illinois-based marijuana company, PharmaCann LLC, sued the Ohio Department of Commerce over its “race-based quotas” after being denied a cultivation license. The company was initially passed over in favor of lower scoring applicants that qualified as economically disadvantaged, and sued on the grounds that “economically disadvantaged” equated to belonging to a certain racial group.
The lawsuit was paused after an investigation revealed a scoring error that resulted in PharmaCann ranking lower than it initially should’ve. The business was awarded an extra license, but the lawsuit may continue if another company with the same complaint about minority preference is allowed to intervene.
Townsend is wary of the weight these companies throw around. “You gotta look at some of the back stories,” he said. “They pushing for diversity, but then they still wanna sue when a minority comes and gets a license.”
PharmaCann currently holds licenses in Illinois for two cultivation centers and three dispensaries, and is one of five companies with the monopoly power of holding multiple licenses.
“It could be a very lucrative thing for everybody if everybody was being taken into account. But because everybody is not being taken into account, it's frustrating,” said Jones.