Senator Kimberly Lightford

As a proposal to legalize the adult recreational use of marijuana moves forward in the Illinois General Assembly, state Senator Kimberly Lightford (4th) wants to make sure the black community doesn’t get left out. 

During a community forum she held on Feb. 11 at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, Lightford and a panel that included state Sen. Heather Steans (7th) — one of the co-sponsors of the current legalization bill — talked about the details of the proposal with pro-legalization organizations. 

Lightford said that when medical marijuana was legalized, there were 24 licenses available for marijuana cultivation facilities; but none of the 16 licenses distributed so far have gone to African-Americans. Only one license went to a business with any kind of minority ownership.

Should recreational use be legalized, the number of cultivation and dispensary businesses would increase. Lightford said that she wants to make sure African-Americans and other minorities have a good shot at securing those licenses going forward. 

Steans said that her support for the legalization measure comes down to the fact that “prohibition hasn’t worked” and that the war on drugs has hurt minority communities. That is also the reason why she wanted to make sure that those same communities would benefit from legalization. The big issue, Steans said, is that the process is “very opaque.” 

Steans explained that, according to the bill she’s co-sponsoring, residents 21 and older would be able to purchase up to 30 grams of cannabis and cultivate “up to five plants” in their homes. They wouldn’t, however, be able to use marijuana in public and “driving under the influence will be illegal.” 

Municipalities would have the power to either closely regulate cultivation centers and dispensaries for recreational marijuana or ban those facilities altogether. Employers and landlords would be able to adopt zero-tolerance policies relating to recreational marijuana. 

And recreational marijuana businesses would have to abide by the same packaging and tracking rules as medical marijuana businesses. Currently, the state tracks every single milligram of medical cannabis that private companies produce. 

Although Steans said that legalizations isn’t a cure-all for the state’s budget woes, she added that the measure could generate around $525 million and create “at least 24,000 jobs.”

The senator has been working with the Marijuana Policy Project, a cannabis policy reform organization, to create what she described as a “three-legged stool” approach to restorative justice. 

Kareem Kenyatta, who works for project, said that this approach would include expungement of prior convictions for marijuana-related crimes, modifying the current licenses to expand opportunities for minority entrepreneurs to get involved by allowing a craft beer model for marijuana cultivation, and reinvesting revenues from taxes on legalized marijuana into minority communities hurt by the war on drugs. 

Kenyatta said that the third leg would focus on job training and teaching entrepreneurs skills they need to start businesses. 

Donte Townsend, the co-founder and media director of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, agreed with Kenyatta and added that his organization would support establishing a Cannabis Equity Commission to figure out how to best use the marijuana tax revenues in minority communities. 

Townsend added that aldermen who “pushed cannabis businesses out of [their] communities” shouldn’t get any of those funds.

Edie Moore, the chapter’s other co-founder and executive director, said that there should be provisions for what she described as an Uber Eats-style service for those who need medical marijuana, but are physically incapable of getting to a dispensary on their own. And she also advocated for cannabis business incubators.

Moore said that she wants the incubators to be places where residents can use marijuana edibles legally. Both she and Townsend said their organization wants fewer restrictions on where people can use cannabis products. 

Daniel Pettigrew and NBA player Al Harrington co-own Viola Extracts,  a Denver-based marijuana cultivation business. Pettigrew, who grew up in Chicago and currently lives in Hyde Park, was on hand to provide a black-owned cultivator perspective. 

Pettigrew said that getting Viola Extracts off the ground was “challenging for [him and Harrington] as minorities.” They didn’t have a lot of examples to follow, and even though Harrington was a celebrity, the company had trouble raising money.  

Pettigrew also explained that any Illinois black entrepreneurs wanting to get into the recreational marijuana industry just as the drug is set to be legalized are already at a disadvantage. 

“There should be African-American cultivators in the existing medical [cannabis] program,” Pettygrew said. “Any new cultivators would be at disadvantage trying to operate in this space. If you don’t control pipeline, how much control do you have?”