Cannabis became legal in Illinois on New Year’s Day, and now Chicago’s administration and community leaders are brainstorming ways to implement a model for the industry that addresses the social harms of prohibition.
Chicago is one of the cities that has been most impacted by the drug war dystopia, so it is fitting that some unorthodox and cutting-edge ideas are being broached in the Windy City. The current unique cannabis ideas the city is considering include a city-owned cultivation co-op which residents could join and earn a stake in and a “peddler’s license” for individuals to sell cannabis themselves.
“Ensuring this emerging industry brings unprecedented economic and social benefits to our communities has been at the heart of our efforts since day one,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times.
With some Illinois municipalities already experimenting with alternative models like cannabis-tax funded “reparations,” Chicago is still in the phase of weighing proposals.
Cannabis buyers spent nearly $40 million in the first month days of the adult-use market, according to numbers reported by the Chicago Tribune on Feb. 4. This was despite widespread supply shortages, long lines and a limited number of licensed outlets across the state.
“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 across Illinois, 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.
A City-Owned Cannabis Co-Op?
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.”
A ‘Peddler’s License’ for Pot Dealers?
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 a retailer to sell 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.
TELL US, would you want a license to sell pot at a farmers market?