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As Revenue Rises, Equity is a Struggle for Illinois Cannabis Industry

By Alex Fashandi |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020

In August, Illinois cannabis dispensaries boasted record-high sales of $64 million, followed by another record-breaking month in September. And, this doesn’t include any of the equally impressive medical marijuana sales.

Joseph “Chino” Pascual is an avid cannabis enthusiast who has quite a negative interpretation of what those sales really represent. 

“It’s trendy and legal and because of that, dispensaries think they can charge a premium,” he said. “I was there, (Jan. 1). I waited out in the cold for hours for what amounted to the equivalent of talking to a clerk at a retail store. It’s just all about the money for them.”

The money all comes from cash sales because most banks are afraid of repercussions due to cannabis’ illegality at the federal level. Currently, the tax revenue from both medical and adult-use sales goes into Illinois’ Cannabis Regulation Fund. The money is then distributed as such:

  • 35% transferred to the state General Revenue Fund
  • 25% transferred to the Criminal Justice Information Projects Fund to support the Restore, Reinvest and Renew Program for community reinvestment
  • 20% transferred to the Illinois Department of Human Services Community Services Fund to fund mental health and substance abuse services at local health departments
  • 10% transferred to the Budget Stabilization Fund to pay the backlog of unpaid state bills
  • 8% transferred to the Local Government Distributive Fund (LGDF) to fund crime prevention programs, training, and interdiction efforts relating to the illegal cannabis market and cannabis-based DUIs
  • 2% transferred to the Drug Treatment Fund for public education and awareness

According to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) the U.S. government spends over $47 billion annually on the war on drugs. This money led to 1,654,282 drug related arrests in 2018, But more than 86% of those arrests were only for possession.

Bruce Bagley, an expert on counter-narcotics and professor of International Studies, told the Los Angeles Times, “I think we have wasted our money hugely, the effort has had corrosive effects on every country it has touched.”

Another of the biggest critiques of the war on drugs is how disproportionately affected black communities were when compared to white communities

In 1988, when the war on drugs was in full swing and Nancy Reagan was telling everyone to “just say no,” black people were five times more likely to be arrested for drug charges than white people according to the Human Rights Watch. As a result of the excessive and racially targeted policing of the ‘80s, America is seeing a large and disproportionate amount of black people in prison nowadays. Despite being only 13.4% of the population, 27% of the people arrested on drug charges in 2017 were black.

For those who have any inclination that this might be because black people are more frequent drug users than white people then look at any of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) studies from the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Data Archive (SAMHDA) which clearly show that there a lot more white drug users than black drug users. For instance, 2018’s survey showed that a little under six hundred thousand whites reported cocaine use in the past year while only around one hundred fifty thousand blacks reported cocaine use over the past year.

Now the state of Illinois is doing what it can to repair the damage caused by the failed reactionary policies of a bygone era.  Namely, they have initiated the Cannabis Social Equity Program which targets individuals and areas disproportionately affected during cannabis prohibition.

This program is a reparation of sorts, allowing for qualified applicants to obtain low-interest loans, acquire technical and legal assistance, and pay reduced licensing and application fees to be part of the new burgeoning adult-use cannabis market. This is what social equity is all about, creating an environment in which those who have been historically disadvantaged are afforded the same opportunities as everyone else.

However, herein there lies an issue. Of the 56 dispensaries listed on the Illinois Cannabis Resource Sites, only 6 were actually located within Disproportionately Impacted Areas (DIAs). This means that the clientele and the community most of these dispensaries are serving are not the ones who are in need of the millions of dollars of revenue that the marijuana industry is generating.

David Stovall, a professor of Black Studies at UIC, said, “equity is not in who gets a new start but it’s the cosmetics of dismissing or expunging previous cannabis charges.”

Expungement is a process in which people can ask a court to remove criminal charges from their permanent record. Obviously, in a state where the crime you were arrested for is no longer a crime, this is a very necessary tool.

However, expungement isn’t a saving grace. Said Stovall: “A lot of times when people enact policy they don’t think about the support needed to mechanize that policy.” 

He added that staffing, backlogs, and exorbitant wait times are all problems for people seeking to expunge their records.

Those previously incarcerated for cannabis related crimes aren’t the only ones in need of social justice either. There are still people in prison in Illinois right now for cannabis related crimes despite cannabis being fully legalized. 

“They’re being locked out,” Stovall said, adding that, while the rest of us get to enjoy, not only the product, but also the tax revenue benefits, careers, and opportunities, the ones who were promoting cannabis the most are being left behind.

Said Pascual: “In my mind, these new marijuana laws aren’t doing enough to get at the issue of all these people who are still in jail for marijuana-related offenses.”

He said he believes that the Illinois government needs to release these types of prisoners and “be given the means by which they can start anew.”

Unfortunately, having mass quantities of people in prison leads to mass amounts of prison labor which has significant benefits for American businesses. Indeed, given the disproportionate amount of black individuals in prison and the fact that prison labor is practically free, it’s seems fair to say that mass incarceration and racially biased policies enacted during the war on drugs has taken the U.S. back in time to the days of slavery. 

“In 2020, we’ve just seen the expansion and renaming of the slave state,” Stovall said.

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