A Fair Shake: Black and Brown Chicagoans Amplify Access to Legal Marijuana

alt text By Briana Madden, Economic Justice Editor, The Real Chi

EDITOR'S NOTE: "A Fair Shake" is a three-part series on how legalized marijuana affects black and brown communities in Chicago. This second story dives into the disparity in access and information on the South and West Sides of the city. Read more about the lack of black and brown ownership in the industry in the first story.

There currently exist many organizations aimed at helping Chicagoans navigate the city’s medical marijuana program, but most are sponsored by cannabis companies in Illinois and very few groups service the South and West Sides of the city. Black and brown folks stand to benefit just as much from access to cannabis as anyone else, but they are readily skipped over by many advocacy organizations.

Chicago NORML was founded as an outreach group last year to fill the void existing in black and brown communities. Beyond high price points and geographic restrictions, founder Donte Townsend sees a detrimental information gap that’s preserving the racial divide, saying “Everybody’s pushing for diversity and everybody’s pushing for equality, but nobody’s really putting their money where their mouth is.”

According to Townsend, the majority of arrests for marijuana are on the South and West Sides of the city, where there are few resources to help people get legal status with a medical marijuana card. “So people are still going to be purchasing cannabis illegally, and cops are still going to be arresting and giving out tickets and what not, and charge people,” he said.

Tiffany Reynolds created Soul and Wellness two years ago in Pilsen with that same idea in mind. The consulting company specializes in coaching people through the complicated process of obtaining a medical marijuana card, organizes educational events and offers products made of legal CBD, which is the medicinal component of the cannabis and hemp plant that doesn’t get you high.

“It’s a class thing, I think it’s a race thing,” said Reynolds, on the lack of education about cannabis in communities like Pilsen. “I feel that it's more available in Andersonville, for example, Wicker Park, for example. There’s not too many dispensaries in this area. So there’s a limitation, when it comes to the community, with the medical marijuana.”

“People need the cannabis and they’re going to pay whatever they have to pay to get it...It’s almost like you’re using patients, and squeezing and milking them.”

Naajidaah Jones is a current caretaker and owner of a medical marijuana consultant company, and used to work at The Herbal Center (THC), a dispensary on 13th Street and Western Avenue. She takes issue with the lack of access to medical weed for already disenfranchised groups. “The problem is that the people who need it, the people who use it, who use it frequently, the people who are arrested for it–marginalized people, people of color–their access to medical cannabis is a little more difficult,” she said.

The pilot program in Illinois only allows for a certain number of licenses to be issued to dispensary owners. There are currently 54 dispensaries in the state and 10 in the city of Chicago. Only three are located on the South Side and THC is the closest to the West Side.

Townsend believes medical marijuana in Illinois is being treated as a commodity rather than as medicine that people need, which is evident in the staggering prices. “People need the cannabis and they’re going to pay whatever they have to pay to get it,” Townsend said. “It’s almost like you’re using patients, and squeezing and milking them.”

The majority of companies profiting from Chicago’s medical program are from out of state, which further limits the benefits that underrepresented communities stand to see. “The people that’s making money are making more money, and they use it to make more money,” Townsend said. “It’s an uneven playing field.”

The medicine provided by the marijuana industry is widely viewed as safer than the pharmaceutical industry can offer, but the practice of exploiting patients is something the two have in common. Comparing the skyrocketing medical prices in Illinois to a system like the one already in place in California reveals the true values of policymakers.

In California, cannabis is available at a lower price point to those with medical recommendations than it is to recreational users. Illinois only has medical marijuana, but it’s priced at a recreational level. This means an eighth, which is about 3.5 grams, costs $50 to $60 in Chicago, but only $30 to $40 in California. Most in the industry foresee even more inflation in legal weed prices once recreational use is approved.

Jones has a plan to make sure black and brown folks get a piece of the pie. Her goal is to create an alternative school in the city for marginalized people to learn about cannabis and how to make money legally for their families. “Not only are you allowing people to sustain themselves, but they're sustaining themselves on something that’s sustainable,” she said. “That has to be an opportunity for marginalized people who are obviously being marginalized and shut out of this program, like intentionally, from the beginning.”

Reynolds also pointed out the language barrier that exists for the neighborhood and other Spanish-speaking communities, since medical marijuana applications only come in English. “We’re trying to make it so that it can be good for everyone, not just for one particular person,” she said.

Industry professionals like Reynolds, Jones and Townsend encourage their black and brown clients specifically to get their medical cards for legality reasons, even if they can’t afford the medical pot.

“I will say that people who have a medical marijuana card and they get stopped, it helps them out. It kind of saves them in a sense … I have talked to a lot of my patients. They don't wanna pay for medical marijuana unfortunately, but they have that card just to be safe. They might get it from somewhere else, cheaper,” said Reynolds.

Information and access are power and fortunately, people of color have been answering the call in their own communities. Black and brown industry professionals are networking and taking matters into their own hands.

“They’re not going to educate us because they’re making they money on locking us up. It’s a speed trap. We don’t have education and access to what were entitled to,” said Townsend. “And they’re not going to give it to us.”