Inside Illinois’ FAILING legal cannabis industry

Biden’s plans bring hope, but an uphill battle remains to turn this sector around and truly achieve justice...

by Matt Rees

“No one should be in jail for using or possessing marijuana” – US President, Joe Biden.

This was not something proclaimed by a wide-eyed university student in a room of giggly teenagers passing a spliff around at 3am. It was a statement made by President Biden last week on cannabis reform. The implications? Pardon all prior federal offences of simple marijuana possession. Begin the process for reclassifying and potentially legalising cannabis at the federal level.

Acknowledge that the war on drugs is failing. For those working to end the global prohibitionist regime, this is undoubtedly one of the most important developments made in recent memory. Having the most powerful politician in the West project social justice arguments for cannabis decriminalisation has undoubtedly energised and given so many people hope. 

I, however, cannot help but remain pessimistic.

This is not because I believe President Biden to be dishonest or otherwise misleading. It is because the legalisation that has already occurred in multiple states across the US has stuttered, stumbled, and ultimately failed the people who need to benefit from the end of the ‘war on drugs’ most. It has, however, not disappointed multi-millionaire inter-state operators or middle-class users.

For African-Americans and other marginalised communities racially demonised since Harry Anslinger’s creation of the ‘war on drugs’ in the early Twentieth century, remain excluded from the multi-billion-dollar industry they helped to build.

81% of legal cannabis business owners are white.

Only 2% are black-owned.

Arrests are down, but those still occurring remain disproportionately target against African Americans.

For black people, incarcerated for cannabis possession at 3.7 times the rate of white people, rehabilitative support post-prison is essentially non-existent. 

In July, I undertook research in Chicago to understand more about the issues plaguing US legal cannabis markets.

Illinois is a state that pioneered the legalisation of cannabis in line with ‘social equity’ principles. Social equity is the value of fairness and opportunity, recognising that exclusion, inequality, and injustice dominate capitalist societies.

Identifying this means that marginalised groups benefit through targeted support. When applied to the war on drugs, communities most affected by decades of racist policing, profiling and subjugation can become the beneficiaries of the legalised trade. It is a social justice framework for legalisation – not merely hollow, capitalistic logic that succumbs to the profiteering of big capital. Yet, despite its positive rhetoric, the reality in Illinois differs. 

One way that Illinois has sought to rectify generational wealth discrepancies is through ownership. To run any legal cannabis operation in Illinois, a state approved license is necessary. License numbers are capped, with a maximum of 500 dispensaries being allowed to exist.

The application process is designed to uplift ‘disproportionately impacted’ groups by awarding additional points to those meeting this criterion. In August 2022, all 185 individuals awarded a conditional license were social equity candidates. From a distance, it appears that the newly legalised market will be in the hands of disenfranchised black and brown people who have been targeted by a system designed to work against them. 

Reality, however, is different. 

License numbers are capped, creating a hypercompetitive process that marginalises the most marginalised from participating. For simply lodging an application, a $250 application fee exists (formerly being $2500). Multiple applications can be made to boost chances of success, with a lottery system ‘fairly’ allocating licenses to the oversubscribed numbers reaching the points threshold. In turn, the richest pour resources into improving their chances of success. As one previous applicant told me, “I don’t have $117,000 to just throw away on application fees. What can I do – basically just say a prayer?” 

People also feel anger at the categorisation of ‘disproportionately impacted’. As alluded to in numerous interviews, qualifying for this status is troublesome and catch-all. Many gaining social equity points have not lived in communities brutalised by under-investment, incarceration, and precarious informal work. Instead, it is the middle-classes who have moved into gentrified neighbourhoods that were previously cannabis legacy market hotspots. For Peter Contos from Cannabis Equity Coalition Illinois, overcoming this is simple: redefine ‘disproportionately impacted’ around one question – “are you impacted by the war on drugs or not?” 

Beyond licensing, Illinois has sought to repair communities most harmed by prohibition through investment. 45% of cannabis tax revenues generated in the state are redistributed to these neighbourhoods via R3 and DHS grants. This is undoubtedly a unique initiative vaguely resembling reparations desperately needing to address generational wealth divides derived from slavery. When President Biden discusses the need to “end this failed approach”, a solution along these lines is required to give people the resources previously denied that are needed to flourish. 

Illinois needs to improve upon this, however. This model is designed to give non-profits with an expert knowledge of a community the funds required to carry out services in areas like harm reduction, job support and violence reduction. However, these funds are often misdirected, going to large national non-profits (like the Girl Scouts) who are not equipped to deal with the needs of specific neighbourhoods. Also, it does not signal an intent for systemic change, instead favouring small-scale responses. 

More importantly, it raises a debate about why individual and direct reparative payments cannot be made. Is it a lack of trust? The complex history surrounding reparations? Nicole and Alonzo from EAT Chicago stated the need to give survivors of prohibition “direct cash payments”.

In their own work, the trial of guaranteed income payments via the ‘Chicago Future Fund’ to thirty participants has succeeded. This fund gives $500 monthly payments to formerly incarcerated individuals. In turn, it has transferred people away from “gasping for air in order to survive” and towards a sense of security denied by their incarceration and criminal record. 

The final pillar of social equity alluded to in Illinois is expungement. This was the headline of Biden’s recent announcement, albeit coming in the form of pardoning. So far, over 500,000 criminal records and 20,000 convictions for previous cannabis offences have been overturned in the state. It is undoubtedly a positive first move. 

Yet, the sentiment is that the expungement qualifying criteria is limited and cautious. Meanwhile, delays in this process exist, whilst awareness is lacking for those not automatically qualifying. Furthermore, the rehabilitative aspect has been overlooked. Probation periods still exist, police reform has not occurred and financial assistance to ex-offenders is not in place. Essentially, the cycle of insecurity that dominates law and order in the US is maintained.

The fact 68% of ex-offenders recidivate within three years highlights the need for institutional reform that this policy is not doing. If President Biden is serious about change, a systemic approach is needed. Merely pardoning will not be enough. Also, the categorisation of ‘simple’ possession is timid and as seen in Illinois, the impact of this in changing lives is not wide-ranging. 

Ultimately, President Biden’s announcement is a step in the right direction. If legalisation can be passed federally, this does change the ball game for removing the legal and financial barriers needed for a true post-prohibition approach to cannabis. Yet, as seen in Chicago, progressive rhetoric and measures does not necessarily equate to progressive outcomes. African Americans have faced discrimination for centuries and require radical change. Pardoning people meeting a limited qualifying criterion does not meet this need. 

Cannabis legalisation presents the perfect opportunity to build a truly equitable industry and society. It is a new market that can have its parameters, regulations and beneficiaries set and regulated by political actors to be inclusive and just. It does not have to follow neoliberal trends and become a soleless market dictated by the wealthiest that subjugates the most marginalised in society further. The potential of a truly social equitable approach demonstrates this. 

As my time in Chicago showed, a truly amazing network of grassroots actors wanting positive change exists. Many inspiring and courageous activists have built meaningful coalitions – something the state should embrace in creating an equitable cannabis industry. 

As Neffer Kerr, Executive Director for NorthStar Minority Cannabis, summarised “We (Chicagoans) are indomitable once we make our minds up about something”. It is with further action from below that systems departing from the war on drugs and neoliberalism can begin to emerge and portray a more accepting future. 

This is a short summary from my Masters dissertation titled “Social Equity and Cannabis Legalisation in Illinois: Creating Equitable Societies?” The amazing organisations referenced in this piece can be found below. Thank you so much to the participants who revealed their stories and outlooks on cannabis in Illinois which helped significantly with my project. 

This piece was written by Matthew Rees. Tweets @MattRees99. Blogs: 

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