South Side activists push for equity in the pot business

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Chicago NORML’s board of directors | Provided photo

A Hyde Park-based marijuana advocacy group is fighting to ensure that communities of color benefit from the burgeoning legal pot industry after suffering for decades under drug policies that resulted in a vicious cycle of crime, mass incarceration and addiction.

Donte Townsend started the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws last August, enlisting fellow black cannabis professionals to serve as the board of directors. NORML was founded in 1970 with funding from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Foundation. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which includes 150 chapters nationwide, has been a driving force in the push to legalize cannabis.

Chicago NORML currently boasts 82 members and aims to “move sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults,” according to the fledgling group’s website. However, the local pot advocates are more specifically focused on ensuring that certain communities aren’t left in the lurch if cannabis is fully legalized in Illinois.

Donte Townsend, founder of Chicago NORML | Chicago NORML/Provided photo

Donte Townsend | Chicago NORML

Provided photo

There are currently no black-owned medical marijuana dispensaries or cultivation centers in the state. Townsend — who serves on Chicago NORML’s board as communications director — noted that Oakland, California’s city council passed legislation in 2016 to more equitably distribute cannabis business permits to people in communities that have been ravaged by the War on Drugs. Townsend knows firsthand the toll of drug abuse after seeing his father, a Navy veteran, struggle with heroin addiction. The group is now pushing for similar legislation in Illinois.

“We just want our cut so we can revitalize our communities,” said Townsend, who hopes to one day open his own dispensary.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker, who has made recreational marijuana legalization a cornerstone of his campaign, said in January that he would “intentionally include black and brown entrepreneurs” in running dispensaries and production facilities as a means of addressing “historically systemic racism.” Last year, Gov. Bruce Rauner said it would be a “mistake” to fully legalize the drug in Illinois. The Republican has instituted the state’s medical marijuana pilot program and decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot since taking office in 2015.

Nevertheless, Townsend said that business owners would still need to put together the money needed to open if the state started doling out a certain amount of cannabis licenses to minority businesses. He said it requires millions of dollars to get a weed business running, and it’s often difficult to get a loan due to the industry’s quasi-legal status.

“You gotta be money’d up,” he said.

Thus, Chicago NORML has proposed using cannabis tax dollars to invest in minority-owned pot businesses in the state. Last year, total retail sales by Illinois’ 53 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries exceeded $85 million, according to statistics compiled by the state.

“We want to be able to use cannabis tax dollars to responsibly build our neighborhoods and be able to be the ones in charge of it,” he said. “Illinois has been making money, so where are these tax dollars at?”

“We want our percentage,” Townsend added.

Chicago NORMLs primary goals. | Chicago NORML

Chicago NORMLs primary goals. | Chicago NORML

Under the state’s medical marijuana pilot program, well-funded corporations have been able to swoop in and establish footholds in the industry. Three of the leading players in the state’s pot game — Cresco Labs, GTI and PharmaCann — have predominately white leadership teams.

Townsend pointed to a perceived hypocrisy that underpins much of his crusade against inequality in the cannabis industry: Businesses in Illinois are profiting from selling weed legally while many people of color toil in prison for ostensibly doing the same thing.

“You gotta think about how many people are doing time right now for cannabis convictions,” he said. “And there’s businesses operating as they were, they just didn’t have the money to pay for it. Now some are in jail, and some are getting rich.”

The Equity Permit Program in Oakland, CA that Townsend has endorsed gives permitting priority to prospective business owners who have who have been convicted of marijuana charges. He hopes the state will also commute pot offenders’ sentences if the drug is legalized.

Members of Chicago NORML have met with a growing list of lawmakers in an effort to advance their agenda. In March, Townsend and his cohorts discussed cannabis policy with Daniel Biss, a pro-pot state senator from Evanston who lost to Pritzker in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, and members of Chicago NORML. | Instagram

State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, and members of Chicago NORML. | Instagram

Aside from pushing for legislative changes, the chapter remains laser-focused on serving minority communities. The group offers dispensary and cultivation training, and members are working with Cabrini Green Legal Aid — a faith-based organization that provides legal aid to people in poverty — to teach former drug offenders how to expunge their records.

“Chicago NORML offers things to the community that nobody else does anywhere, especially in Illinois,” Townsend said. He now hopes to team up with other Chicago non-profits with similar community-based goals, including Chance the Rapper’s SocialWorks charity.

The group will hold its next open meeting July 1 at Soul and Wellness Medical Marijuana Services and Education, 2007 S. Blue Island Ave.

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