How legalized pot can help heal wounds inflicted on black and brown communities

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Marijuana grown at the Cresco Labs in Joliet. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Change presents opportunity.

In recent weeks, some activists have warned that the legalization of adult-use cannabis could harm communities of color. But the truth is that, implemented responsibly, legalization would help heal the wounds inflicted on black and brown communities by the War on Drugs.


Chicago NORML supports a direct redistribution of cannabis tax dollars into the communities most impacted by the drug war, along with automatic expungement of all cannabis-related misdemeanors. At least a 50 percent share of all cannabis dispensary licenses should be reserved for minority applicants, and lower barriers to entry, expanded license types, and other opportunities should be provided.

The legislative process currently underway includes input on these issues of social justice and equity. We are hopeful that the bill sponsors will meet at least these basic and necessary demands for equity.

Illinois NAACP President Teresa Hailey and DuPage NAACP President Michael Childress are among the leaders of the opposition to legalized adult-use cannabis in our state. Their stated concerns include drug testing and potential consequences on a person’s employment. But many public and private employers already address positive marijuana test results within their workforce. The legalization of adult cannabis use would not change the current implementation of employment practices in Illinois; cannabis would be dealt with the same way alcohol and other substances are managed. And unlike alcohol, cannabis is not statistically associated with occupational accidents or injuries.

Legal adult cannabis use won’t necessarily lead to fewer arrests of black and brown people for cannabis related offenses — Hailey and Childress are right about that. In Colorado, the first state to legalize adult cannabis use, black folks still are arrested for cannabis-related offenses three times more than whites. But rather than blame cannabis for these disparities, we should look at a deeper cause: Racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Hailey and Childress invoke stereotypes of cannabis users as uneducated, unmotivated and unable to take control of their own health. Contrary to these stereotypes, Chicago NORML’s members include doctors, lawyers, educators, entrepreneurs, community organizers, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. There is no typical cannabis consumer, and there is no universal cannabis experience.

To paint us all with one broad brush does a disservice to those of us who support legal adult cannabis use.

Some opponents base their opposition on supposed health concerns. They claim, for example, that second-hand cannabis smoke is more deadly than second-hand tobacco smoke, and that cannabis use causes lung cancer. According to the CDC, more than 2.5 million nonsmokers have died from secondhand smoke-related causes since the 1960s. No deaths are currently known to be attributed to second-hand cannabis smoke, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine stated in 2017 that no solid research links combustible cannabis use to an increased risk or incidence of lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Opponents cite the growth of e-cigs to draw some kind of unspecified parallel. The only parallel we see between e-cigs and adult cannabis use is that people often use e-cigs to taper themselves off of cigarettes or other tobacco products, just as people sometimes use cannabis to replace opioids or other harmful medications.

It is important to note, moreover, that adult use of cannabis is not correlated with an increase in cannabis use by those under 21. In fact, multiple studies show that cannabis use in young people may actually be on the decline.

Edie Moore is executive director of Chicago NORML. Dr. Ricky Hill is a member of Chicago NORML and serves on its legislative research team.

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