Chicago’s Black Leaders Voice Equity Concerns Over New Illinois Marijuana Law

The City Council passed zoning regulations for recreational marijuana sales, but the Black Caucus is concerned about minority-owned business inclusion.

Chicago passed city zoning regulations for Illinois’ new recreational marijuana law, but some of the city’s Black leaders are concerned about the lack of minority-owned business participation.

City Council approved, on a vote of 40 to 10, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed zoning rules Wednesday for where marijuana dispensaries can operate. The council’s Black Caucus previously tried to hold up the vote over concerns that Black residents aren’t represented among the owners of nearly a dozen existing medical marijuana dispensaries who would get a head start in the city when recreational sales begin Jan. 1.

Eleven existing businesses will be allowed to use their current location to sell recreational marijuana in the first year of legalization, according to a plan by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. These same businesses will also be allowed to exclusively open a second recreational site until late spring of 2020, when other new businesses get a chance to bid. All of the selected business owners are white, according to Alderman Jason Ervin, chairman of the 20-member Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus.

“Of these 11 businesses … there is zero Black ownership. Let me repeat this: zero Black ownership of the existing lottery,” Ervin said at a news conference before the council meeting, criticizing the current plan. “Social equity means … ownership. People who look like the folks standing up here having an opportunity for ownership. Not participating as workers.”

Ervin introduced an ordinance Wednesday that would delay the start of recreational sales in Chicago to July 1 so that the council can find more equitable options that boost minority ownership. That proposal was referred to committee.

Alderman Anthony Beale, a Black Caucus member who has been a vocal critic of Lightfoot, said Wednesday he would vote against the mayor’s zoning rules to influence city officials to correct mistakes in the state law.

“When we look at the fact that the Black and brown community has been adversely affected by the cannabis industry ― jails have been filled up, people have been locked up ― and now we are being locked out of benefiting from this particular ordinance,” Beale said. 

“How do we start a game already down 22-0? That is a travesty,” he added. “We have an opportunity to make sure our community can get a piece of the pie. I guarantee you … when these licenses are rolled out, and the first 22 are people not of color, they’re going to have a 12-month head start before we even start trying to level the playing field. How do we do that?”

Alderman David Moore, also a member of the Black Caucus, agreed with Beale, saying that zoning regulation “is our only leverage.”

“This thing only comes once in a lifetime where we can gain some ground finally,” Moore said, recalling memories of friends getting arrested for small amounts of marijuana while growing up.

“There’s so much to look at when you look at the lottery piece. They say that’s equal, but it’s not equitable. You put 44 white balls in and one black ball and what’s the probability that a black ball will get chosen?” he continued. “There is no equity. The zoning is right, but there is no equity.”

Ervin still supported voting in favor of the zoning regulations Wednesday, urging his fellow members of the Black Caucus to prioritize zoning and focus on the issue of equity at a later date.

“I agree with you that there are issues of equity in this conversation, there is no question, there is no doubt I stand 100% on it,” Ervin said. “But what I do not want to see is these places opening at portions of our community or anywhere in the city that the local community, the aldermen and the city of Chicago do not want them to be. … We will deal with the issue of equity.”

Beale and Moore continued to be two of the 10 council members who voted no on the ordinance.

A spokesperson for the Black Caucus did not immediately answer questions from HuffPost about voting in favor of the zoning regulations despite the lack of minority ownership, as well as what the caucus thinks is the likelihood that the measure introduced Wednesday will pass.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been criticized over the zoning regulations connected to new recreational marijuana law.<br>s
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been criticized over the zoning regulations connected to new recreational marijuana law.

Lightfoot, who was at the council meeting, stressed that concerns about giving Black business owners a fair chance at recreational sales should be taken up with the state, not the city. The mayor said Chicago has very limited movement under Illinois’ recreational marijuana law when it comes to sales and that the main channel the city can control is through zoning rules. Lightfoot’s zoning plan splits the city into seven zones and excludes part of the downtown Loop area.

“I will be your partner in joining and addressing equity issues where they can be addressed, which is in Springfield,” she told the council Wednesday, referring to the state capital. Lightfoot has been under pressure to avoid a delay so that the city could get the much-needed revenue from marijuana sales to help fix Chicago’s debt.

The Black Caucus said it is willing to work with Lightfoot and state lawmakers to amend the law in favor of social equity and boosting minority-owned businesses, according to CBS Chicago.

“In the end, we want to see people that look like us in this business profit from it,” Ervin said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed a bill in June legalizing the possession and sale of recreational marijuana, making Illinois the first state to pass a measure on comprehensive legal pot sales through its legislature rather than as a ballot initiative. The state legalized medical marijuana in 2014.

The law was marketed as equity-focused, with a social equity program meant to help small minority-owned businesses enter the industry through grants and loans, as well as a program that puts a portion of the industry’s revenue back into communities that were disproportionately affected by the drug war. The law also includes expunging marijuana convictions for up to 770,000 cases.