Opponents of marijuana legalization in Illinois accused the industry of “pimping” out communities of color on Wednesday at an event in downtown Chicago.
With a pro-legalization governor about to take office, the opposition effort in Illinois is gearing up for the fight, starting with claims the cannabis industry takes advantage of minorities in order to turn a profit.
According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston of New Hope Baptist Church made these comments alongside other speakers at a meeting of Healthy and Productive Illinois, the local anti-legalization effort backed by Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
The Kennedy-backed organization is the main voice against legalization across the country, despite the fact that the Rep. Joe Kennedy III, the family’s fastest-rising political star, recently backed legalization in an op-ed for STAT. The piece reversed the anti-pot position Rep. Kennedy held as recently as March, because the times are a-changin’!
Rev. Livingston went on to claim that Illinois’ move to decriminalize eliminated any social justice argument for marijuana legalization, despite people of color continuing to be disproportionately targeted for enforcement.
While the Chicago Sun-Times found that since the city and state decriminalized marijuana, arrest numbers have plummeted, African Americans still face the brunt of cannabis policing in Chicago. In 2017 and the first four months of 2018, 94 people were arrested in Chicago for petty marijuana possession over 10 grams. 76 of those individuals were African American, 16 were Hispanic and two were white. The Sun-Times noted academic studies have found that marijuana usage is similar across racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Those in attendance at the Healthy and Productive Illinois meeting apparently hope to convince Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker to oppose marijuana legalization, after he expressed strong support for it on the campaign trail. But Livingston took more of a direct approach, and raised the issue with the governor-elect over his cousin Joby Pritzker’s involvement with Tao Capital Partners, an investment management firm with investments in Juul and Pax Labs.
Livingston cited Pax as a company that sells marijuana pods, but technically they just provide the hardware for their partners to fill up and for consumers to use with their vaporizers. The only thing at the company that touches weed is the Pax logo, when their partners put it on their packaging to signify their product is Pax Era compatible.
Livingston also said Pritzker was all about the cash influx. “Mr. Pritzker, for those of us who can see through the smoke, we can clearly see and smell the new money that your family and business cronies cannot wait to pocket,” he said.
Pritzker’s campaign spokesman Jordan Abudayyeh countered these comments and later stated that Pritzker has no financial stake in his cousin’s company and the governor-elect supports legalization as a means to end racial disparities, not inflate them.
“J.B. will also prioritize inclusion as we move toward legalization by intentionally including black and brown entrepreneurs in the planning and licensing of new marijuana businesses, ensuring new jobs and businesses are created in the communities that have experienced the disinvestment in the past,” Abudayyeh told the Tribune.
The forthcoming legalization bill’s sponsors, state Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, echoed Pritzker’s intentions. Steans offered a multifaceted approach that would include expungement of past low-level convictions, an increased number of licensing categories to allow for small craft operations and increased funding and access for members of low-income communities who want to start their own cannabis operations.
We reached out to the National Cannabis Industry Association to get their take on Livingston’s accusations of their plans for Illinois. “Equity issues and policies are increasingly at the forefront of cannabis industry conversations, rightly so and probably more so than any other industry,’ NCIA Media Relations Director Morgan Fox told Cannabis Now.
As the industry has worked hard over the years to push Congress for a responsible, inclusive industry, Fox pointed to the results seen on Capitol Hill.
“We can see this in the language of Congressional bills and resolutions like Rep. Barbara Lee’s RESPECT resolution, and even more so at the state and local level recently. We still have a long ways to go, but we are heading in the right direction as an industry and as a movement,” Fox said.
Fox also commented on Rev. Livingston’s remarks about the industry’s impact on communities of color.
“Regarding the claim that legalization has not helped people of color… arrests for cannabis have dropped by the thousands in every legal state,” said Fox. “The fact that racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws continues for the charges that remain available to law enforcement says more about law enforcement practices than it does about legalization. Ending prohibition can’t eliminate systemic problems in criminal justice, but it does take an often misused tool out of the toolbox, and it should provide opportunities to those communities most affected by the war on cannabis.”
The nation’s oldest marijuana reform organizations, NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project, have dealt with rhetoric from the anti-legalization side for decades. They weighed in on Livingston’s comments.
“As our opponents become more marginalized and out-of-step with public sentiment, it is hardly surprising that they are becoming more desperate — a fact that is reflected in the ratcheting up of their inflammatory rhetoric,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Cannabis Now. “But at the end of the day, no amount of fear-mongering or hyperbole is going to change the minds of the majority of Americans who acknowledge that regulatory alternatives to cannabis criminalization are preferable and are the best-proven methods for keeping our communities healthy and safe.”
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for MPP and a leader of the effort to legalize marijuana in Colorado, also offered his take on the matter.
“It’s disappointing to see a community leader pushing to keep marijuana illegal, as that illegal status causes more harm to the community than marijuana itself. It’s telling that he is urging lawmakers to maintain prohibition, rather than encouraging them to consider regulations that could potentially address his concerns,” Tvert told Cannabis Now.
He went on to call out Smarter Approaches to Marijuana as an organization.
“Rather than engage in a thoughtful conversation about maximizing public health and safety in a world where marijuana is widely demanded and widely available, SAM and their coalition members will say just about anything to keep marijuana illegal,” Tvert concluded.
TELL US, do you think cannabis legalization would be good for Illinois?