Chicago wrestles with models for equitable cannabis sector

Posted on January 31st, 2020 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , , , , , .

ChicagoA month into legal cannabis in Illinois, Chicago is considering various experimental models for cultivation and retail sales aimed at empowering those communities criminalized under prohibition. Ideas being weighed include a city-owned cultivation coop which residents could join, including the low-income on a "sweat equity" basis.

Cannabis became legal in Illinois on New Year's Day, and now Chicago's administration and community leaders are brainstorming on how to implement a model for the industry that addresses the social harms of prohibition. Chicago is one of the country's cities that have been most impacted by drug war dystopia, so it is fitting that some unorthodox and cutting-edge ideas are being broached.

Windy City holds cannabis confab
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is to lead a panel discussion Feb. 1 at the opening of the city's first Cannabis Resource Fair, with workshops on employment opportunities in the new industry, and such issues as the process for expungement of cannabis-related offenses.

To be held at the University of Illinois' UIC Forum, the free event will feature officials from local and state government, as well as some 65 businesses, organizations and nonprofits involved in the cannabis industry. These include Chicago NORML, the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, Illinois Equity Staffing, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

"Ensuring this emerging industry brings unprecedented economic and social benefits to our communities has been at the heart of our efforts since day one," Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times in announcing the confab.  "By working hand-in-hand with city and state officials, community advocates, and industry partners and providing residents with the resources they need to succeed, we can empower those interested in becoming the next employee, business owner or investor in Chicago's newest industry."

The panel to be led by Lightfoot will also feature state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who was on the front line of the legalization effort in Illinois, and Wanda James, founder and CEO of Denver's Simply Pure Dispensary, who is hailed as the first African American cannabis dispensary owner in the United States.

Pat Mullane, media spokesperson for the mayor’s office, told Cannabis Now that a goal of the Resource Fair is "reaching out to the communities targeted by the failed war on drugs and prohibition, and exploring how we can get them involved in this new cannabis industry and economy."

Spearheading alternative models

With some Illinois municipalities already experimenting with alternative models, Chicago is still in the phase of weighing proposals.

Cannabis buyers spent nearly $20 million in almost a half-million transactions in the first 12 days of the adult-use market, the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation announced on Jan. 12. But this was in spite of widespread supply shortages, long lines, and a limited number of licensed outlets.

"Illinois had a far more successful launch of cannabis than many of the other states that have legalized, but this is about more than money, it's about starting a new industry in a way that includes communities left behind for far too long," Toi Hutchinson, the governor's senior adviser for cannabis control, told the Evanston Patch.

Some 40 new dispensaries have opened already this year statewide, adding to the approximately 30 pre-existing medical marijuana dispensaries that have been grandfathered into the adult-use market.

But Chicago may be trying something very different—indeed, unprecedented in the nation. In December, Mayor Lightfoot said her office has plans for a city-owned cannabis cultivation co-op would especially offer residents, especially those from black and brown communities, an opportunity to buy in with a "modest cash investment," or, for those who can't afford it, with "sweat equity"—labor in lieu of money.

Lightfoot portrayed the "cooperative cultivation center" idea as a means of assuring that Chicago's cannabis market will not be dominated by big capital, or the city's most privileged.

"This is a very, very expensive business to get involved with," she told the Sun-Times in announcing the idea. "The basics to be a cultivator requires about a $13 million to $15 million investment. There are not a lot of people that have that, particularly in a market that a lot of banks and traditional lenders won't touch. I think the only way to really crack this nut is for the city to invest its own resources to get engaged, get diverse entrepreneurs involved in the most lucrative part of the business, which is cultivation."

Alderman Jason Ervin of Chicago's 28th ward expressed outrage that African Americans have "zero representation" among the 11 grandfathered medicinal dispensaries that offered the city's first adult-use sales on New Year's Day.

Gov. JB Pritzker's office voiced tentative support for Lightfoot's proposal—but said it would have to wait until next year, when the new law allows the Illinois Department of Agriculture to decide whether to increase the number of large-scale cultivators in the state.  "The administration is excited that people are discussing new and innovative approaches to equity and we look forward to exploring those options when the application for cultivation centers begins in 2021," a Pritzker representative said in a statement.

But the Department of Agriculture, contacted by the Sun-Times, hedged on whether the new law allows issuance of cultivation licenses to a public entity.  "The rules are still being written on that," said department media rep Krista Lisser. "We really haven’t been posed with that question as of right now."

Another proposal, likely to be more controversial still with state authorities, has emerged from community activists led by Tio Hardiman, a longtime anti-violence campaigner with the group CeasefireChicago. Hardiman on Jan. 22 issued his call for the creation of a "peddler's license" that would allow retailer to vend cannabis at farmer's markets or out of the backs of trucks. Hardiman said the idea could help "ease some of the conflict with the illegal drug trade," and help ease the city's crisis of gun violence.

"This way you can take the criminal element out of [selling cannabis] and allow these young guys to make some legal money. And then you can help reduce unemployment in the African American community," Hardiman said at a press conference outside the Herbal Care Center, one of the city's grandfathered medical dispensaries.

According to the Sun-Times, Hardiman said these small retailers would be required to keep a "paper trail," and drew a parallel to operations such as Grubhub or Uber that use mobile apps and log transactions.

Contacted by the Sun-Times, the offices of Gov. Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot issued statements that "didn't directly address" Hardiman's proposal. Pritzker media rep Jordan Abudayyeh noted that legal cannabis is currently only sold by licensed dispensaries "to ensure that products are regulated and safe." But she added that as new licenses are handed out, priority will be given to "social equity candidates," who have cannabis offenses on their records or live in areas hit hard by the drug war.

Pat Mullane of Lightfoot's office similarly said the mayor is committed to ensuring that all Chicagoans, but especially those from "disadvantaged communities," will be able to "benefit from jobs and economic opportunity created by the newly legalized cannabis industry."

Chicago over the past decade has suffered from blatantly racist police practices in drug enforcement, and what can only be called human rights abuses. In 2015, grim revelations emerged of "black site" or clandestine prison run by the city police force—completely outside the law or any public oversight.

Correcting this legacy will clearly be one of the biggest challenges for legal cannabis in the nation. Advocates coast to coast would do well to watch how things unfold in this heartland metropolis.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now.

Photo by Gravitywave


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