How to make marijuana legalization work for all of Chicago’s communities

Ordinances like the one we will be introducing soon will establish zoning regulations for the sale of adult-use cannabis, along with licensing for consumption sites.

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Marijuana being bottled at Revolution Cannabis facility in Delavan, IL. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Marijuana being bottled at a facility in Illinois.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

In May, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis. We did so with the goal of bringing an illicit market out of the shadows and righting some of the historical injustices of the past.

How we handle legalization can be a tremendous opportunity if we do it the right way. If we fall short, it can inflict harm on Chicago’s communities.

We’ve seen how over-enforcement of illicit cannabis use has disproportionately impacted people in states that legalized cannabis before Illinois. Prohibition has been an abject failure, destroying the lives of mostly black and brown individuals due to racially-biased prosecution and sentencing practices, and subjecting entire communities to the trauma of excessive and heavy-handed policing.

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Two years after cannabis legalization in Colorado, the cannabis arrest rate for white 10- to 17-year-olds fell by nearly 10%. Yet, during that same period, the cannabis arrest rate for Latino youth rose more than 20%, and among African-American youth, it increased by 50%.

Colorado’s experience is just one cautionary lesson Chicago must learn from. It’s our turn to get it right for every resident.

While I believe cannabis legalization is long overdue, I want to do it in a way that uplifts the economic life of our neighborhoods and residents, particularly those in our black and brown communities who have borne the brunt of the war on drugs. I want to stand-up this emerging industry so adult residents can consume cannabis safely, ancillary businesses can thrive, and our city can receive needed tax dollars.

I have watched closely as other jurisdictions created their own legalization regimes and developed novel ways of doing everything from growing an industry from scratch, generating funds for public services, preventing unjust enforcement, and keeping this drug out of the hands of children.

While I welcome the revenue generated by this new industry, a top priority is to ensure that small and nascent black and brown businesses thrive in Chicago’s cannabis economy. That won’t happen if we simply flip a regulatory switch without real intention and foresight.

That’s why over the past few months, my team and I have been working with community members, business leaders, economists, law enforcement officials and other experts to ensure we create opportunity.

Our program of generating revenue and creating equity will be concentrated on three fronts. The first is regulatory, which includes ordinances like the one we will be introducing soon. These ordinances will establish Chicago’s first zoning regulations for the sale of adult-use cannabis, along with licensing for consumption sites and other measures, laying the foundation for how we regulate this industry and leverage it to expand wealth and social equity for our residents.

Furthermore, we are working with the Chicago Police Department to deter overly aggressive enforcement of minor cannabis possession violations, preventing an increase in tickets, fines and arrests.

The second front will focus on developing social equity programs, encompassing financial assistance and other hiring and workforce initiatives for community members seeking to participate in this new industry.

And finally, we will broaden this new industry’s ecosystem by partnering with our city’s world-class universities and medical research centers to explore innovative public health and socially responsible entrepreneurial strategies, to develop pathways for involvement in the industry as it matures.

The City Colleges of Chicago must take advantage of this historic opportunity. The Illinois Department of Agriculture will work with the Community College Board to create eight pilot programs across the state. Of the eight programs, five will be awarded to schools where more than 50% of students come from low-income households. Chicago will prepare our students to be at the forefront of this emerging industry, which will create local jobs in our communities. The City Colleges will lead this effort.

It’s important to note the leadership of Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers like Sen. Heather Steans, Rep. Kelly Cassidy, and Sen. Toi Hutchinson, who put in years of hard work to craft legalization legislation that included unprecedented social and criminal justice reform. Because of their efforts, Illinois will have an expedited process for expunging the criminal records of individuals with misdemeanors or Class Four felony violations under the Cannabis Control Act.

Legalization in Chicago starts Jan. 1, and that date is coming fast. If we do this right, we will not only expand social equity and opportunity for our residents, we will also create a legalization model the rest of the nation can follow.

We will make this moment ours.

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