Illinois Gov Says Cannabis Legalization Will Bring Social Justice, But Black Leaders Aren’t Convinced

On the 2018 campaign trail, Illinois Governor-elect JB Pritzker (D) promised to legalize recreational cannabis in the Prairie State. A move he said would have great implications for a state that has seen stark racial disparities in its criminal justice system, where people of color were disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition. To then-candidate Pritzker, legalization offered  a way to turn the page on Illinois drug policy and close the racial divide in law enforcement.

"We can begin by immediately removing one area of racial injustice in our criminal justice system," Pritzker said following his victory in the Illinois primary earlier this year. "Let's legalize, tax and regulate marijuana."

Pritzker's plan to bring racial equity to Illinois involves expunging minor cannabis-related convictions, removing rules that prevent people with misdemeanor marijuana crimes from working in the cannabis industry, encouraging diversity hiring practices, and other initiatives.

Those are all steps in the right direction, but much more needs to be done, according to leaders of the state's black communities. Senator Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) - Joint-Chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus - says she's concerned that unless Pritzker's cannabis legislation is worded carefully, legalization could actually lead to more people being pulled over for "driving while black."

"Clarity is really important," Lightford told Chicago Sun-Times. "We do not want to find ourselves in the position where we’re just generating revenue—which is terribly needed. We're creating a new statute that I believe I could support provided that it has parameters in place that are clear and understood among state's attorneys, judges, law enforcement and the community."

'It just feels like a smack in the face'

Other critics argue that legalization is already off to a bad start because Pritzker hasn't consulted the very people who have been impacted the most by the racial disparities in Illinois' justice system. Donte Townsend -  founder of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) - says he is upset that his group, largely made up of black cannabis workers, was not consulted in the drafting of Illinois legalization bill.

"It just feels like it's a smack in the face," he said. "They know our name and the work we do and we get overlooked and not included in the process of what we’re fighting for."

But Townsend's colleague Edie Moore disagrees. Moore - the Executive Director of Chicago NORML - says Chicago Democrats Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who are leading the legalization effort in Illinois, "are doing their best to incorporate the concerns of the underserved community." That said, Moore added that she won't be afraid to push back if cannabis legislation falls short of her group's expectations.

"If legislation is introduced that does not address our policy concerns, Chicago NORML, its supporters and community partners are prepared to push back until we are satisfied that every opportunity for advancement has been exhausted."

Moore is particularly concerned about venues that allow onsite cannabis consumption, which have yet to be addressed by Steans and Cassidy. Moore says social consumption sites would be a good way to bring some of the new industry money back into black communities.

While some leaders want to see the state's approach to legalization tweaked, others want the Pritzker administration to scrap it altogether. To Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, the social justice aspects of legalization "smoke and mirrors" concealing the fact that the state's real motivation for marijuana reform is money.

"I like to say that the smell of weed is there for no reason other than to cover the new money that Pritzker and big business are looking to make," said Livingston.

Livingston believes that the decriminalization of cannabis in Illinois is enough, so he plans to fight against legalization in 2019.

So while all parties have acknowledged the horrendous racial disparity in Illinois' drug laws, there is no consensus concerning how to address that problem.

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