Changes won’t be made to state pot law to meet equity concerns from black aldermen, the bill’s sponsors say

The law’s authors say it includes important provisions to increase the number of people of color working in the industry.

SHARE Changes won’t be made to state pot law to meet equity concerns from black aldermen, the bill’s sponsors say
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(From left) Gov. J.B. Pritzker, State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, State Sen. Heather Steans, State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, and State Rep. Kelly Cassidy hold up legislation that makes Illinois the nation’s 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana use during a bill signing ceremony at Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center on the West Side, Tuesday morning, June 25, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Sponsors of the state law legalizing recreational pot said changes won’t be made to meet the demands of black aldermen seeking ways to bolster minority participation in the city’s cannabis industry.

The City Council’s 20-member Black Caucus has raised concerns over the utter lack of black ownership in the state’s pot business, and that existing operators will be the first to profit when recreational marijuana is legalized next year. Earlier this week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she would partner with them in seeking redress from the Illinois General Assembly.

But state Sens. Toi Hutchinson and Heather Steans, two sponsors of the overarching pot legislation that passed last spring and granted that head start to the current owners, stand by the law. They both said it contains measures to ensure equity in the industry moving froward.

“The equity provisions [were included] when we passed that initial bill,” said Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat who will soon become the state’s pot czar.

Following Tuesday’s whirlwind meeting of the City Council Zoning Committee, the Black Caucus introduced an ordinance that would prevent recreational pot businesses from operating in the city until July and held a press conference Wednesday to voice concerns over the lack of black representation in the industry.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), the caucus chair, complained that existing dispensary operators will have first crack at selling recreational weed, adding that none are black-owned. Flanked by fellow black aldermen, Ervin also bemoaned the “loopholes” that allow business owners seeking new licenses to earn credit on their applications for employing individuals who live in areas adversely affected by the drug war —even if the owners don’t meet that criteria.

“I don’t believe that truly is what social equity means. I think [it’s] about the ownership of people that look like the folks that are standing up here having an opportunity at the ownership level — not [to] be owned in part or just participating as workers,” Ervin told reporters before the full City Council approved the mayor’s amended dispensary zoning ordinance.

However, Hutchinson said that specific provision incentivizes the hiring of minority workers and is desperately needed.

“I wish I could say that our only issue is that we don’t have business owners,” said Hutchinson, who is a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. “That’s not our only issue. We also don’t have jobs. ... I want people to go to work, and we need people to go to work.”

Steans, a Chicago Democrat, noted that delaying the city’s start date for recreational sales, as the aldermen have proposed, could “undermine the actual work of getting social equity applicants in the door and getting more diverse businesses up and running.” That’s because dispensary application fees are needed to supply a development fund that will be used to offer grants, loans and technical assistance to equity candidates, she said.

Hutchinson and Steans both said it’s important to allow the cannabis industry to develop before Hutchinson publishes a mandated study by March 2021 that will probe whether there is discrimination in the industry and its possible effects on the state. Based on the results, a “sheltered market based on racial diversity” could be established, Steans said.

For now, Hutchinson said she’s open to working with the Black Caucus by offering insight and technical assistance.

“We’re not operating at cross purposes,” she said. “They’re gonna roll out their equity provisions in the city of Chicago and we hope they’re strong and stringent because that’s exactly the lens by which we view all of this.”

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