There’s plenty of buzz surrounding the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Illinois. Legislatures in Springfield have been considering a proposed bill filled with conditions, which is being debated in and outside of the statehouse.
But who would really benefit if the drug was made legal for recreational use? The Defender spoke with Chicagoans to find out their thoughts on the passing of the bill.
First, it’s important to be able to distinguish between some provisions in the bill. One significant provision is known as decriminalization of marijuana, which involves the expungement of some marijuana possession convictions. It would help people who have been previously convicted, according to Teresa Haley, president of NAACP Illinois Chapter. She says this would be a good thing for people in our community.
“We know that if Black folks did marijuana, they were sent to prison; but White folks did meth or cocaine and they were sent to rehab,” she adds.
However, Haley cautions people from confusing decriminalization of marijuana, which she supports, with legalization of it, which she doesn’t think will benefit Black and Brown people.
“I think it is setting us up for failure,” Haley explains.
She thinks people will be randomly tested for drugs on their jobs and will assume, because marijuana is legal, that they are okay. However, this will hurt people in the long run and cause them to lose jobs. She also points to other areas where people caught with marijuana may be penalized, such as Section 8 where residents cannot have family or friends convicted living with them.
Haley points out, “someone will have a record that you purchased seeds to grow marijuana.”
“The people writing the legislation (for legalization) have not walked in our shoes,” Haley continues. “We already have depression and are seeing more suicides; people who smoke weed says it calms them down, but if you are depressed, it can be a trigger. Marijuana today is a lot stronger than what it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. People haven’t thought about this or talked about it. This legislation or bill was not well thought through.”
Many other people, including Governor JB Pritzker, are looking at the economic possibilities of legalizing the drug. Pritzker says the revenue from the taxes on the drug can be used to pay down the state’s debt. And others think it is a great opportunity for investors to make money. But will Black people be able to get in on their share of the pie?
“I have been to dispensaries to simply understand the industry,” says Theresa Dear, a national management consultant and host of a WVON talk show on employment and entrepreneurial practices. “African Americans just aren’t in it…because of the capital required to start a dispensary and the layers and layers of bureaucracy required to get a license to do so. It has not had the infrastructure for easy access for African Americans in particular. When you think about that, this is a multibillion–dollar industry that doesn’t require advanced degrees…you would think there would be people ready to make an investment, but that’s not the case. I am only aware of one thriving African–American owner and he’s in Oregon.”
Dear thinks the problem with access will need to be addressed if Black people are to benefit from legalization.
“Access to licenses and capital is not necessarily governed and controlled by the industry…it is the states who are locking people out,” says Dear. “I’m not talking about Illinois in particular because I do think Pritzker will find a way to give African Americans access to this cannabis platform, but around the country you will find, systematically, African Americans are not engaged on this platform…when you look at all of these other huge, rich, viable entities we have been locked out of, it’s the same thing. You can apply that to the hair and cosmetic industry, and it goes on. There’s an opportunity here to break those cycles of generational poverty and people are still locking us out intentionally.”
Haley does not agree that legalization of marijuana will fix financial problems for African Americans.
“I understand that the state is in trouble…and we need to pay down the state’s debt,” Haley says. “But there are other ways. Middle class people say it is a great opportunity to charge people taxes (on marijuana) and pay down the state’s debt, but if you are Black, you can’t afford a dispensary any way. I don’t know why they are buying the hype. It will take 3-4 of us to buy a dispensary. White folks already have the money. The price can go up to $1 million (including start-up costs, and such); we can’t afford the dispensary. We can’t afford to purchase the land to grow it. I just think this is another opportunity for rich people to get rich and poor people to be left behind. It’s a form of oppression. We will lose thousands of jobs out there because we can’t pass a simple [drug] test. People will think it is legal, not thinking if the federal law hasn’t approved it, it doesn’t matter what the state says if you work for entities associated with federal government.”
Dear, however, thinks the mindset has begun to change toward marijuana. “I don’t think it will be negative for work,” she says. “The perspective has changed in the last 5-7 years. The stigma associated with use or sell has diminished…legalizing recreational marijuana has taken the stereotype away…there has been an intellectual shift around how people view use of marijuana.”
If the bill is passed, Illinois will be the 11th state to legalize the drug for recreational usage.
Tracey R. Waugh of Chicago is hoping to help people to continue to evolve when it comes to thinking about marijuana usage. She shares information daily on her social media platforms about the benefits of cannabis use for personal reasons. When she lived in Los Angeles during the ‘80s, she helped a cousin who was diagnosed with bone cancer.
“I was the one taking her to and from chemo at UCLA,” she says. “After chemo, she would be nauseous…and I took care of it. After a few puffs [of marijuana], she’d say ‘let’s go get something to eat.’”
Watching her cousin, and later her own mother, benefit from cannabis first hand made Waugh want to educate people about the overall benefits.
“In LA, there was no shame in my game…but here [in the Midwest/Chicago] there is such a closed mind when it comes to alternative medicine.”
She thinks people who are dying from illnesses such as strokes and prostate cancer who don’t want to take medicines can benefit from products related to the cannabinoid system.
Waugh, a self-described voracious reader, says she has researched the benefits of cannabidiol (CBD) as well as the history of the drug, and she is part of a team that sells products containing CBD oil online (myctfocbd.com/waughsome). She says getting involved in the industry could be our way of collecting “reparations.” While she’s not interested in owning a dispensary, there are many other ways she thinks she, and others, can be a part of the industry.
Dear also pointed out that there are many ways to be involved in the multibillion-dollar industry.
“Think about what it takes to grow cannibas — the soil, lights, apparatus to control temperatures…all of these products are part of the retail industry and we’re just not there.There’s a whole retail industry selling clips, shirts, caps…people work in cannabis fields, to pick it and make sure it is ready for market. African Americans are locked out and we don’t know about these types of opportunities.”
State lawmakers will continue to debate this hot issue throughout this session and Black folks should keep an eye on all of the issues as they will impact us one way or the other.