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Dems say pot bill will create social justice, but black leaders aren’t sold yet

newly transplanted cannabis cuttings grow in soilless media in pots. Illinois Democrats plan to include social justice elements to their upcoming cannabis legalization bill, but some black leaders are waiting to back the measure. Illinois Democrats plan to include social justice elements to their upcoming cannabis legalization bill, but some black leaders are waiting to back the measure.

Illinois Democrats plan to include social justice elements to their upcoming cannabis legalization bill. | AP file photo

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker campaigned on a platform to end pot prohibition in Illinois, often emphasizing the ways legalization could benefit minority communities that have been ravaged by the drug war and largely left out of the state’s budding cannabis industry.

But some black leaders have been slow to endorse the Pritzker-backed legalization effort that’s being spearheaded by state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy. The Chicago Democrats plan to introduce a new bill to legalize pot when lawmakers reconvene in Springfield next month.

“Clarity is really important,” said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, joint chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. “We do not want to find ourselves in the position where we’re just generating revenue — which is terribly needed. We’re creating a new statute that I believe I could support provided that it has parameters in place that are clear and understood among state’s attorneys, judges, law enforcement and the community.”

Among other things, Lightford hopes to clarify whether parolees would be tested for cannabis and learn more about the protocol for spotting and testing impaired drivers. She’s worried that legislation could lead to cops pulling over more people for simply “driving while black.”

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford chats with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a bill signing last August. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Lightford noted that members of the caucus were still on a “fact-finding mission” and hadn’t come to a consensus on the upcoming bill. Some might even oppose the measure based on resistance from law-enforcement agencies, she said.

While the plan is still developing, some elements have started to come into focus: Minor pot convictions would be expunged; people with misdemeanor pot convictions would now be allowed to work in cannabis facilities; additional cannabis licensing categories would be created to break down the barriers to entry in the industry; and cannabis firms would be encouraged to set diversity hiring goals and required to lay out plans for reinvesting in the communities they serve.

Additionally, a portion of a proposed marijuana excise tax would be used to fund nonprofits offering technical assistance and seeking grants for developing pot businesses in underserved communities.

On the campaign trail, Pritzker vowed to review and commute pot offenders’ sentences. He has more recently outlined an equity program that would include fee waivers, technical assistance and subsidized loans for black and brown entrepreneurs looking to open new pot shops.

Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker speaks during a press conference outside the Thompson Center, Thursday morning, Oct. 18, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker speaks during a press conference outside the Thompson Center in October. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“J.B. believes we need to reverse the disproportionately negative impacts current drug laws have had on communities of color and that includes retroactive efforts to review past sentences as well as intentional efforts to include minority entrepreneurs in the licensing of new businesses,” said Jason Rubin, a spokesman for Pritzker’s transition team.

Pritzker is also receiving insight from his transition’s Restorative Justice and Public Safety Committee, which Cassidy sits on.

Donte Townsend, founder of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he was upset that his group wasn’t offered a seat at the table. Chicago NORML is a pro-legalization nonprofit made up mostly of black cannabis workers pushing for racial equity in the pot industry.

“It just feels like it’s a smack in the face,” he said. “They know our name and the work we do and we get overlooked and not included in the process of what we’re fighting for.”

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

Members of the committee — including Charlie Bachtell, CEO of the leading Chicago pot firm Cresco Labs — will now have the chance to make recommendations that could impact the state’s cannabis industry and criminal justice system, Townsend said.

Edie Moore, executive director of Chicago NORML, said the group believes Steans and Cassidy “are doing their best to incorporate the concerns of the underserved community.” Nevertheless, Moore has voiced her own concerns about lawmakers potentially pushing the cannabis bill through without fully addressing certain social justice components.

“If legislation is introduced that does not address our policy concerns, Chicago NORML, its supporters and community partners are prepared to push back until we are satisfied that every opportunity for advancement has been exhausted,” said Moore, who also owns a stake in the Mission cannabis dispensary in South Chicago.

Edie Moore, executive director of Chicago NORML | Edie Moore/Provided photo

Steans and Cassidy have shown support for some of the proposals favored by Chicago NORML, like establishing corporate diversity programs and creating licensing categories for craft cultivators and cannabis-based food and beverage makers.

But the group has more ideas that haven’t been considered for the upcoming bill, including a proposal to create social consumption licenses that would allow for cannabis use in public areas, like bars or coffee shops. As part of the plan, establishments would be zoned in new commercial corridors that would be developed in minority communities.

“We need that social consumption because it allows more people to get into the industry and it allows for the revitalization of these blighted communities,” Moore said. “Bring the money to those communities.”

Cassidy, a Chicago NORML donor, acknowledged that public pot consumption is “a complex issue that does need to be addressed.” However, she said the matter hasn’t been “contemplated for this bill.”

(L-R) Rev. Al Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy push for pot legalization last April. | Andrea Salcedo/For the Sun-Times

Cassidy and Steans are currently awaiting the results of a study outlining how much legal cannabis revenue would be created and how much pot would be needed to meet the state’s demand. Aside from adding more clarity to the social and criminal justice aspects of their legislation, the study will also help lawmakers decide how to dole out cannabis tax dollars, another potential crux issue.

Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, an anti-violence activist and the interim pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in West Humboldt Park, said the social justice elements of the bill are simply “smoke and mirrors,” noting that cannabis has already been decriminalized in Illinois.

“I like to say that the smell of weed is there for no reason other than to cover the smell of the new money that Pritzker and big business are looking to make,” he said.

The reverend is fighting legalization efforts alongside the Healthy and Productive Illinois project, a coalition that includes the Illinois Chiefs of Police Association, the Illinois Drug Enforcement Officers Association, the Midwest Truckers Association and the Illinois Association of Housing Authorities. The project is an offshoot of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Virginia nonprofit that combats pot legalization nationwide.

Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston leads protest on Lake Shore Drive | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston leading an anti-violence protest on Lake Shore Drive in August. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

According to Livingston, legalization will primarily benefit corporations selling a product that’s addictive and highly-potent. In addition to rallying support within the faith-based community, Livingston has also discussed the issue with state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, and state Rep. Marty Moylan, D-Des Plaines.

“We’re gonna keep fighting this,” he said. “I think we’re getting some traction.”