Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus splits on historic marijuana vote

A plan by the caucus to halt weed sales in Chicago to establish better social equity measures fell short this week after six of its own members voted against it.

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Photo by Olivia Obineme

Mayor Lori Lightfoot addresses a crowded City Hall chambers as she presents her first budget proposal to City Council Wednesday, October 23, 2019.

Members of the City Council’s Black Caucus may have dealt their group a fatal blow Wednesday by splitting on a historic vote that would have delayed marijuana sales in Chicago in exchange for a better path to equity in what’s predicted to be a game-changing industry.

The ordinance, which failed by a 29 to 19 vote, would’ve delayed sales in the city for six months. The caucus argued that social equity elements of the legislation decriminalizing recreational marijuana sales statewide beginning on Jan. 1 didn’t go far enough in ensuring black ownership in the nascent industry. 

“Cannabis has lost us hundreds of thousands of African Americans in this city and we can’t get a piece of it. We need a piece of this and if we don’t get it, no one should get it,” said Ald. Anthony Beale in an impassioned speech before the vote.

The caucus had been beating the drum for months that grew louder after the mostly white and male turnout at the dispensary license lottery in November. The lottery allowed dispensaries who currently had an Illinois medicinal cannabis license to open another location in one of the seven designated zones for cannabis businesses. “It was white and male because all of the medicinal dispensary owners are white and male … They were given a first pass or first crack at having two locations and they didn’t have to jump through the hoops anybody else did in order to order to make that happen,” said the chairman of the caucus Ald. Jason Ervin at the time.

After squeaking through the City Council Committee on Contract Oversight and Equity Tuesday, the ordinance appeared to have enough support, but fissures in the black caucus emerged early in the meeting even before a wave of parliamentary maneuvers led to the vote. In total, six of the 20-member caucus voted against the ordinance.

First, Ald. Brendan Reilly and Ald. Gilbert Villegas voted to delay the vote until the next city council meeting, rendering the ordinance obsolete since legal sales would’ve already begun. That was followed by Beale moving to adjourn the meeting, which ultimately failed. After that vote, Villegas withdrew the motion to delay pushing for a vote.

“We would not have called this matter if we didn’t have the support needed to pass it. Again, why individuals changed their minds, I can’t answer that,” said Ervin following the vote.

Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr., Ald. Pat Dowell, Ald. Michelle Harris, Ald. Chris Taliaferro, Ald. Ema Mitts and Ald. Matt Martin all voted against the measure, according to The Chicago Sun-Times.

“I don’t know about you, but I like to win,” said Burnett, flashing his credentials as a former boxer. “We’ve got ’em on the ropes. They’re making deals with us.”

While most aldermen tip-toed around answering why they voted against the ordinance, the most common thread lead back to whispers from the governor’s office. Though vague in his answers, Ervin pointed to two new medical dispensaries slated for Hyde Park and Chinatown as “wins.”

“These are all positive steps that have been made in the last few days in order to move this issue forward,” he said, directing all questions against the ordinance towards the members who broke rank.

Spokeswoman for Gov. JB Pritzker Jordan Abudayyeh would not confirm any deal, according to The Chicago Tribune .

Following the meeting, Moore, who supported the measure, announced his retirement from the caucus in an angry rant aimed not only at his fellow aldermen, but also the mayor and the governor.

“I don’t need to be going to meetings just for b*******. I don’t need to be going to meetings. I need to be going to meetings to fight for our constituents and that did not happen today,” he said. “Bottom line, we tried to slow this down to bring everything to the table. To dot the i’s and cross the t’s. So the onus is on the governor and the mayor to make sure black people get equity in this, real equity, not just a $13 an hour job being a budtender.”

The ordinance did get some unexpected support from members of the Latino Caucus. Ald. Raymond Lopez voted to pass the ordinance and called out his other members.

“I think that the misstep of the Latino community, particularly the Latino Caucus, is that this is not just a black issue,” said Lopez. “We’re all in the same boat, whether we realize that we have the same oars or not, and until they realize that nothing will change, which is why hope calling them out today on this matter, stirs something in them to look at it a little differently.”

At a press conference following the meeting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot shook off comparisons to City Council wars and that the vote signaled a deeper divide between her and the black caucus.

“First of all, that diminishes the magnitude of City Council wars. City Council wars was based upon the racist notion that a black mayor shouldn’t be allowed to fully function in government,” she said, adding that she and the governor have met with the caucus numerous times to address concerns. “Sometimes you just have to take a win.”

Earlier this week, Lightfoot proposed establishing a city funded co-op cultivation center financed by $15 million in TIF funds allowing residents of color to buy in with a modest cash investment or with “sweat equity.”