Give African Americans equal chance to prosper in marijuana industry

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

It’s a bitter irony: the black community paid the highest price when the government was waging its misguided war on drugs.

But now that cannabis legalization looks likely, guess who’s in danger of being frozen out of this new opportunity?

That’s right: the black community.


Thankfully, we can take some simple steps to correct this injustice and undo some of the damage that’s been done.

Before I get into that, a quick refresher: it goes without saying that the war on drugs was catastrophic for black people. Nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison for drug offenses — and almost 60 percent of people in state prison — are black or Latino, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. A black person was nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, the ACLU found. And so on.

You might be tempted to say, “Oh, but that’s old news. Things changed when we realized cannabis wasn’t so dangerous.”

Sorry, the facts say otherwise. Between 2013 and 2016, 89 percent of the people convicted in Chicago on marijuana charges were African-Americans, noted the Chicago Sun-Times.

And now, everyone is talking about the legalization of cannabis and what a boon it could be for our cash-strapped state. And that’s great. I fully support it.

This time, though, it’s imperative that we fix some of our past mistakes and make sure communities of color are involved. Instead of harming us, cannabis could help us — as long as we do it the right way:

  • For starters, we should expunge convictions for the cannabis-related offenses that may soon be legal. In a great first step, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced plans to expunge past convictions for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
  • Also, at the state level, the legislature is currently considering HB 2039 (also known as the Restoring Justice Act), which would lessen the sentencing for a past conviction when the state decriminalizes or lessens the penalty for that same offense.
  • On an enterprise level, we need to make sure that African Americans have an equal opportunity to purchase licenses for cannabis businesses.

The existing drug industry can only support between 35 and 54 percent of the demand for cannabis, according to one recent study. That means a lot of companies will come here looking for licenses to sell cannabis. This is a growing industry and we should try to take full advantage of it, but this can’t just be business as usual.

In the past, your typical group of well-connected insiders would give out licenses to their backroom buddies. That’s how it used to be done.

Not this time.

This has to be an open, transparent process that gives African Americans an equal chance and helps us make our community whole. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate and bring this new business across the state, not just the usual well-heeled areas.

For decades, people of color were the ones who were hurt the most by the cruel, ill-advised war on drugs policy. Now that the winds have shifted, we need to make sure African-Americans are right there to gain from the potential benefits.

It’s only fair.

Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields) is a member of the Illinois Senate and president of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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