A cannabis legalization measure supported by Illinois’ Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker and key lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate is expected to be unveiled at the end of April, with proponents pushing for passage by the end of the legislative session in May.
And even though the bill’s sponsors have worked closely over the last two years with members of the legislative Black Caucus, and promised robust programs to encourage a diverse industry and the expungement of records—along with community reinvestment—the bill’s timing doesn’t sit well with members of a coalition gathered in hopes of defeating it.
At a small news conference on Chicago’s Southside on April 17 African American leaders affiliated with the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana argued that Illinois lawmakers are rushing through a cannabis measure that will harm communities of color in Chicago, and will only benefit large cannabis corporations. “This is not about social justice,” Omari Prince, the Illinois state director for Smart Approaches, told a handful of reporters outside the office of Senator Emil Jones, legislative Black Caucus Chairman. “We do not want another drug war in our communities.”Prince referred to corporate interests backing the bill as “Big Greed.”
Michael Childress, president of the DuPage County NAACP, echoed those sentiments and told reporters that similar promises were made about community reinvestment from state lottery funds, instituted in the 1970s. “What we don’t need is another way to keep our communities drugged up,” he said at the press conference held outside of the district office of Senator Emil Jones III, a leader of the legislative Black Caucus.
Childress said that his NAACP chapter had taken its cue on the issue from the state’s NAACP president.
But the NAACP is apparently not united on the issue. Other Chicago-area chapters of the NAACP had been invited but didn’t make the event. Cannabis legalization has created an apparent rift for the storied civil rights organization between its various state and local level chapters. While the president of the Illinois NAACP has referred to cannabis legalization as a “form of modern-day slavery,” the NAACP’s Hilary Shelton, a senior vice president for advocacy and policy, told Cannabis Wire in a previous interview (published in our newsletter Tuesday) that the Washington, D.C.-based organization believes that “NAACP units support reform” in Illinois—as long as the legalization measure includes “a more comprehensive reform package that will address second-chance reforms and expunge records of non-violent marijuana convictions made before the law was changed.”
The arguments advanced by Smart Approaches to Marijuana representatives are exactly the issues that the bill’s primary sponsors, Chicago-area lawmakers Representative Kelly Cassidy and Senator Heather Steans, have sought to overcome by speaking about the importance of equity and opportunities for communities of color. Jones could not be reached for comment, and his position on cannabis legalization is not clear.
Both lawmakers say social justice and equity are particularly important to them. They’re not alone. Lawmakers and regulators in the early legalization states of Colorado and California have recently said that they are increasingly worried about the industry’s lack of diversity and the existing disproportionate arrests of people of color for cannabis-related crimes, which has also become a flash point among early Democratic presidential contenders.
In an interview with Cannabis Wire after the press conference, Abu Edwards, Smart Approaches to Marijuana’s director of state affairs, said lawmakers could show goodwill toward the African American community by passing robust expungement, decriminalization, and social justice bills that deal with the ills of the war on drugs before moving ahead with legalization.
“All of that needs to happen before we start talking about making money off of drugs,” he said.
Edwards said that recent events in New Jersey offer a parallel to what Smart Approaches to Marijuana hopes to accomplish in Illinois: the group says it helped to at least temporarily derail a cannabis legalization measure, despite one-party control and the support of key lawmakers. Edwards said his group was “laughed out of people’s offices” before its arguments gained traction.
Childress, the NAACP leader, said he hopes for similar results in Illinois. Asked by Cannabis Wire if he simply doesn’t believe lawmakers’ promises for robust investment in communities of color as a result of cannabis legalization, he said the legacy of broken promises is too long to ignore. “That’s the history of our country, isn’t it?” he said.