A look at both sides of the fight for equity in Chicago’s legal cannabis industry

A look into the years-long fight for Black and brown communities to have a seat at the table in Chicago’s legal cannabis industry

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Illustration by Robin Carnilius/The TRiiBE

As the marijuana business continues to boom across the state, Black Chicagoans still suffer from the lingering wounds of the U.S. government’s War on Drugs campaign that ran from the 1970s to the 1990s. Meanwhile, the state of Illinois raked in nearly $110M during the first quarter of legal recreational cannabis sales. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) recently announced that the state made $35.9 million in cannabis sales in March alone.

Cook County led the U.S. with the most marijuana possession arrests by county with 91 arrests a day — of whom 72.7% were Black, according to a 2010 American Civil Liberties Union report. Yet, today in Chicago, none of the licensed dispensaries have Black owners. 

As white men dominate legal cannabis in Illinois, Black residents, activists and street dealers can’t help but wonder: how will Black Chicago get their long-deserved piece of the cannabis pie?

Lens on Lightfoot

On the state and city government levels, there are moves being made to not only include and employ Black residents, but to ensure that the funds generated from cannabis sales are used to reinvest in Black neighborhoods. Meanwhile, grassroots organizations and entrepreneurs are fighting in their own ways to hold both entities accountable to ensure that they follow through with providing that equity.

“Equity means giving the guy who wants a better life, who wants a regular job, a chance,” said Edie Moore, executive director of Chicago NORML. “To me, the ones who have been selling weed, they know what a 3.5 looks like. They know the language. So why wouldn’t they be good budtenders?”

Jay Moe, a father of one and a street dealer who declined to give his real name, agrees with Moore. “I think we ought to be considered for those kinds of jobs because the city and the state have a responsibility,” he said.

Moe, an on-and-off resident of Chicago’s Southeast side, had been dealing drugs since he was a teenager, due to suffering from extreme poverty. To him, current and former dealers deserve a fair shot at using legal cannabis to turn their lives around and improve their conditions.

“[The War on Drugs] devastated a lot of people, so I think not only should all of the money made go back to our communities, but people who’ve been locked up should have the first shot at working at a dispensary,” Moe said.

Back in 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed House Bill 1438 into law. A portion of that bill includes the state’s promise to distribute cannabis revenue to law enforcement training, mental health facilities, substance abuse programs and the Recover, Reinvest and Renew (R3) program designed to collect cannabis revenue and redistribute it back to communities that suffer from high crime and poverty rates with a history of economic divestment (i.e., white flight, the war on drugs, etc.) and more. 

Despite the Black community’s natural skepticism of whether the state will live up to its promises, Illinois State Senator Toi Hutchinson (D) is asking everyone to be patient and “play the long game.”

“Overall, the industry has been growing over the last 10 years and we weren’t a part of it. So, yes, we’re in the game late,” she said about Black people being excluded from legal cannabis. “But what I’m saying to people who are watching in Illinois is that this law is only [a few months] old. So [take] all the angst and all the concern, put your head down and do the long game with us, because this is going to take some time.”

Well-documented reports of government corruption and financial misappropriation on state and local levels have left a bitter taste in the mouths of Black Chicagoans. Even with various Black Chicago aldermen leading the call for more Black-owned dispensaries and equity in the city, residents like Kai Maloy are educating people about the cannabis industry. She’s a cannabis infusion chef who makes edibles for medical marijuana patients and hosts monthly seminars about the business.

“When you’re generating so much money, an organization should be responsible for the community they reside in and not the communities they choose,” Maloy said. “They shouldn’t be making all of this money in Chicago and be the biggest donor to Naperville.”

What should cannabis equality look like? 

For years, organizations such as Chicago NORML, the National Diversity Inclusion & Cannabis Alliance (NDICA), Mission Dispensaries and Minorities for Medical Marijuana, just to name a few, have been involved in various efforts to bring more Black people — especially those formerly incarcerated — into the legal cannabis game. 

When it comes down to what equity should look like for Black Chicagoans, especially former and current street dealers who might have a criminal record, Chicago NORML’s Moore believes it depends on the individual.

“It really depends on the person, to me,” she explained. “When I see people selling weed in the community where I am the most [on the South Side], they look like they’re doing a hard job. It doesn’t look like it’s easy.”

In January, politician and Violence Interrupters executive director Tio Hardiman argued that current and former street dealers should be allowed to have a peddlers license to sell marijuana — in the same way food vendors operate. 

“Everyone is promising direct profits from the sale of marijuana into the communities that have been most impacted by the sale of illegal drugs,” Hardiman said. “Well, these unemployed men and women are saying they can’t wait until that happens. And to be frank, they don’t believe it will happen.”

Luz Cortez, an organizer for Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition, said Hardiman’s solution isn’t as simple as it sounds, as she compares it to the issues that food cart vendors face, including the alleged harassment from CPD and the city.

“The issues are going to come with the corporations who are making money,” Cortez said. “They’re going to push back and say, Well, we pay this much money to have this shop. Why are you letting this person just pay this small fee?’ And [the city] is going to throw all these fines at them. And then, how is this person supposed to get a lawyer and protect themselves?”

Prior to legalization and to this day, cannabis activists have been practicing other solutions, such as traveling to Springfield several times a year to lobby different cannabis equity house bills. Full disclosure: I traveled with Chicago NORML and CEIC together in 2019.

In February, the members of Chicago NORML and the greater NORML organization, Illinois state Rep. Sonya Harper, Cabrini Green Legal Aid and many other Chicagoans traveled to Springfield to speak with congressmen about creating more spaces where people can freely smoke and vape, protecting medical cannabis patients’ right to grow their own plants, and stronger protections against companies being allowed to discriminate or fire medical and recreational cannabis users from their jobs with drug tests or through other means.

“Lobbying is important because we have to give information about our causes to our congressmen. Legislators don’t always know what it is that you know,” explained Edie. “After I sat down with (U.S. Sen.) Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) [in January for a roundtable discussion], I realized that when we saw her in 2017, there was nothing on her cannabis radar. When we went back [to Springfield] in 2018 she sponsored a bill. Here she is in 2019 walking in a dispensary with me,” said Moore.

Another grassroots organization, the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition, is on a campaign to get dispensaries across Chicago to agree to a collective benefits agreement. This CBA would ensure that dispensaries help build and support communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. 

Akele Parnell is an organizer and attorney with the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition. Through the CBA, he said, the goal is to have each dispensary in Chicago provide employment opportunities to residents in their respective neighborhoods. It also requires dispensaries to give back to communities affected by the War on Drugs through service and educating residents about their rights under statewide legalization.

By late February, the CEIC had met with various Chicago-area dispensaries including PharmaCann, Nature’s Care Company, Green House Group, Cresco, Modern Cannabis Dispensary, and MedMar Lakeview with varying degrees of success. The organization said that some have been willing to meet and abide by their CBA, while others have failed to respond to them. 

In March, CEIC announced that Nature’s Care Company was the first dispensary to sign the CBA. By signing the CBA, Nature’s Care Company committed to hiring 75% of its employees from neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, contracting 10% of its products from minority and social equity businesses, donating 10% of its net profits to community organizations working in communities impacted by the War on Drugs, and more. 

“We want to ensure that the communities that are most impacted by the War on Drugs continue to benefit from economic success in Chicago,” Parnell said.

Meanwhile, the city of Chicago has been focused on reforming the wide range of cannabis laws that led to the arrests of many Black residents. Earlier this year, The TRiiBE reached out to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and was referred to Assistant Deputy Mayor Paul Stewart, who also is Chicago’s cannabis coordinator.

Stewart said the city had been working with many of the aforementioned cannabis advocacy groups to create new regulations that will address hefty fines for having a few grams of marijuana on hand or in a vehicle, in addition to further educating the Chicago Police Department (CPD) on the ever-changing legalities of legal cannabis consumption. 

“We worked on a number of different regulations to make sure that the city’s municipal code aligns with the state so that we can make sure that the Chicago Police Department understood legal cannabis possession and consumption,” Stewart explained in an interview with The TRiiBE. 

According to Stewart, the city has decreased its punitive fines for minor cannabis possession violations — inside a vehicle or public use — from a range of $250-$500 per incident to a range of $50-$100 per incident. 

Additionally, Stewart said, the city removed legal cannabis from its vehicle impoundment program. “So if you have a minor cannabis offense, you are no longer subject to have your vehicle impounded,” he added. 

However, cannabis possession still carries serious penalties in Illinois. A person who carries it unsealed in their car can still be ticketed up to $50 on their first offense and $100 on their second offense if caught within a 30-day period. Also, while a car can’t be impounded for having a small amount of cannabis inside, if police can prove that marijuana was purchased from a street dealer, or vice versa, the vehicle can be seized and impounded. 

Regarding CEIC’s Community Benefits Agreement, Stewart said, the city is dedicated to ensuring Black and brown communities benefit from cannabis. That’s why, he said, the city hosted its first-ever Cannabis Resource Fair in February, where more than 5,700 residents registered to attend and connect with more than 65 cannabis businesses, organizations and nonprofits — half of which were accepting applications and resumes. 

In 2019, City Council approved a new ordinance, proposed by Lightfoot, to establish the city’s first zoning regulations for cannabis sales.

“As part of Mayor Lightfoot’s efforts to ensure residents have a voice in the implementation of legalized cannabis sales in Chicago, the ordinance also establishes requirements for all new cannabis business establishments to host community engagement sessions as part of their application through the Zoning Board of Appeals,” a 2019 city press release said. 

“The city continues to work closely with the Cannabis Equity Coalition along with dispensaries, non-profits, advocates, and entrepreneurs to ensure this new industry creates meaningful opportunities for all of Chicago’s communities,” Stewart wrote in a follow-up email. 

On the state level, Hutchinson pointed out how HB 1438 created a $30-million revolving loan program for social equity applicants who wish to own a dispensary. This money comes from the tax revenue raised from the first medical marijuana dispensaries after it was signed into law.

“This is significant because no other state put actual resources behind business development funds for the economic development of it,” Hutchinson said. 

According to Hutchinson, Illinois is the only state that has created a dispensary application process where 20% of the revenue generated by dispensaries must go toward social equity. They must also address the call for equity with diverse and local board members, employees, community benefits plans, and how they intend to help the community they are located in.

“We knew, going into this, [that] it’s about something bigger than whether or not someone can get legally high,” Hutchinson explained. “This is about creating new entrepreneurs and undoing the harm that has hit our communities harder than anybody else.”

By her account, small nonprofit organizations designed to serve Black and brown communities are always the first to on the chopping block of budget cuts. She says that this was one of the main reasons why the fund was created.

“The same thing that happens in almost every industry and that’s we’re under-resourced. Cannabis is not unlike any other industry we’ve operated in so we had to think about what happens when dollars get redirected and why do our communities still look the way they’ve looked if people keep saying they’re giving us money. One of them is a lack of sustainable, repeatable resources. Intentional dollars that go into the same places so you can measure and track results,” she said.

Missing the boat on cannabis?

As Black Chicago continues to navigate through the thick smoke of the cannabis business, the biggest question echoing from the street corners to City Hall meetings is this: have we missed out on an opportunity to cultivate generational wealth from legal cannabis?

Stewart said he believes things are just getting started for Black Chicagoans.

“I think we’re at the starting point. I really believe cannabis wealth doesn’t just lie in having the overhead or license for just a cannabis-related business,” he said. “There are opportunities for things that are already in business that contract the city, [such as] vendors, ancillary businesses.”

Some entrepreneurs like city resident Maloy also see opportunities outside of the dispensaries or street-corner hustle. Cannabis enthusiasts can seek out a license for craft growing, she said, or a license to make cannabis-infused foods. 

“It’s a lot of ways to be legal and do some good shit in cannabis. You don’t necessarily have to go through the dispensary route,” Maloy said. “You need to come up with a clear and concise plan that you need to do to survive and get this money.”

State Sen. Hutchinson warns that if Black residents keep their interests too narrowly focused on dispensaries and cultivation farms, they could miss out on untapped or overlooked revenue streams in cannabis. 

“We have got to understand that this is an entire industry and there will be all kinds of things that will grow that have nothing to do with touching a planet,” she said as she referenced the hemp industry and other cannabis adjacent industries such as transportation.

“This is an entire industry and if we don’t see this for what it is, the entire business of it, then we will miss the boat,” Hutchinson said. “We have a long way to go.”

And while the outcome of the Illinois equity war is still uncertain, organizers and state reps who have been crucial to Illinois legalizing cannabis have been having small victories in the city and across the state. 

According to Peter Contos, vice president of the CEIC, they have had productive meetings about their CBA with Cresco, Modern Cannabis Dispensary, and Nature’s Care Company. Jondae Scott, supervisor of Mission Dispensary, based on the Southeast Side, also stated they are welcome to hearing any proposal of a collective benefits agreement.

In addition, several new bills have been filed at the state capital in February such as HB 5274 that addresses cannabis and edible cannabis delivery, HB 5472 or the Local Licensing Cannabis Act, HB 5527  and HB 5201, both amending the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act. And currently, State Rep. Sonya Harper is also introducing HB 4706 which, if approved, will allow people to bring their own marijuana to a business, and increase the number of spaces where people can freely smoke.

“This is just the beginning of legalization. I want to talk to you on Jan. 1, 2021, to see if what we did worked,” Hutchinson said with a laugh. “What we’re doing is intentionally, methodically, slowly turning this whole damn thing around.” 

Ultimately, the thing that activists and advocates want is for everyone to have the same access and opportunities in the legal cannabis industry.

“For me, [cannabis equity] means everybody gets what they need. If you need the medicine because you have PTSD or you have arthritis, or lupus, or cancer, you get what you need and have access to what you need and you have access to that medicine you need in your neighborhood,” said Moore. “You don’t have to go up North. You don’t have to go someplace else for it.”

The Lens On Lightfoot project is a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining the first year of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.