Illinois will forever be 11th on the list of American states to legalize marijuana. But it’s got a good shot at the number one spot on any list of inclusive, socially therapeutic cannabis industries.
The law Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D-IL) signed Tuesday legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana for adults borrows much of its technical, scientific, and economic detail from states like Colorado and Washington, where lawmakers essentially wrote the pioneering legislative texts which largely eschewed decades of cannabis policy rooted in “Reefer Madness” for the first time.
Illinois lawmakers, however, have cut a new trail on policy questions that have bedeviled legalization-minded legislators elsewhere. Low-income communities of color that have borne disproportionate shares of the social and fiscal costs of the War on Drugs will have a dramatic leg up in the race for dispensary and grow-shop licenses in Illinois ahead of the law’s primary implementation date of January 1, 2020.
Those same communities will be first in line for direct investment from the new tax revenues cannabis will generate for Illinois. A full 25 percent of that new money is required to be set aside for the new “Restore, Reinvest, and Renew Program,” colloquially known as “R3.”
The R3 program’s community reinvestments are only one part of what state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D) termed the bill’s “reparations.” The high economic barriers to entry to legal cannabis sales around the country have already created an industry where profits are largely extracted by people already rich enough to be professional investors.
“What we are doing here is about reparations,” Gordon-Booth said. “After 40 years of treating entire communities like criminals, here comes this multibillion-dollar industry, and guess what? Black and brown people have been put at the very center of this policy in a way that no other state has ever done.”
The law will wipe out arrest records for possession of small amounts of cannabis semi-automatically. State police officials have until the end of the calendar year to gather a list of everyone arrested for having less than an ounce of pot on them going back to 2013. Those arrests will be automatically expunged at year end, and the agency will then set about gathering such records from earlier years.
Convictions are harder to wipe out automatically, but the state police will also pull a list of everyone arrested for minor cannabis possession and furnish it to the state board that makes clemency recommendations to the governor. Pritzker has said he hopes to erase nearly 800,000 people’s criminal histories for minor cannabis crimes as a result of the expungement and clemency requirements of the law.
A clean criminal record isn’t enough to get in on the looming bonanza in legal pot sales in Illinois. It is incredibly expensive to obtain a license to run a grow or retail business in a legalization state. The same populations that were disproportionately targeted for drug war enforcement activity over the past half-century also have drastically lower median household wealth.
The legislators who crafted Illinois’ legalization package think they’ve cracked the financial barrier to entry for the predominantly black victims of the drug war as well. The state will waive half of the application fee for license-seekers who are either long-term residents of a “disproportionately impacted area” (DIA) or who have been incarcerated for a minor pot crime that is eligible for expungement under the bill. Such “social equity applicants” (SEAs) can also cite a direct family member’s incarceration as grounds for this legislative high-speed lane through the canna-business red tape.
The targeted aid doesn’t stop at licensing either. SEAs who receive a license to grow or sell marijuana in Illinois will also be eligible for special low-interest loans from the state, direct grant aid for start-up costs, and other booster-seat mechanisms baked into the law.
The state expects to pull in half a billion dollars per year in new marijuana taxes by 2024, with sales expected to top the $2 billion annual mark by that time. The legislation’s social equity provisions are meant to ensure that the people hardest hit by the drug war get to share in the peace dividend that’s coming.
Other states have at least attempted to wrestle with the idea of providing reparative justice alongside legalization, but rarely – if ever – have they done so in the same detailed fashion as Prairie State legislators. Ohio’s failed attempt at legalization a few years ago included a flatly unconstitutional requirement that a certain share of business licenses go to members of racial or ethnic minorities. California’s legalization bill included such slack inclusion measures that municipalities have had to jump in after the fact to establish locally-scaled social equity systems for the glut of money, jobs, and tax distributions that comes with legalization.
“I think the biggest thing is they’re doing social equity before it’s enacted,” marijuana policy inclusion expert Chris Nani said in an interview. “That’s been the biggest issue I’ve noticed throughout the states.”
Nani, a recent Ohio State Law School graduate whose comparative studies of various social equity programs in the pot business have been cited by the Minority Cannabis Business Association as benchmarks, said it’s not impossible to fix a lack of inclusivity in the initial statute. It’s just a whole lot harder.
“If you look at Los Angeles, they’re trying to put in social equity after the fact and it’s just not working,” he said. “Oakland is a good program, a little more expansive, the requirements aren’t as stringent. But in San Francisco, with its extremely dense population, the social equity program was narrowly tailored to benefit a small amount of people and it just couldn’t sustain itself.”
The Illinois measure is more robust than anything Nani’s seen cooked into day-one law in legalization states. That doesn’t make it perfect, or even guarantee it will achieve its aims.
“As far as the actual act goes, the language can say anything. You should be more concerned about whatever sort of regulatory body will be in charge of writing the rules,” Nani said. “Whoever’s in charge of that, how they interpret the rules, that’s where you start seeing results.”
Illinois will soon have multiple new official bodies to fill in the empty spaces in those regulatory mad-libs. But the law left the blanks fairly narrow, and set up its key committees to reflect the equity focus of the bill itself.
A new 24-member advisory panel on the public health impacts of legalization will include a dozen different practicing medical providers, five people involved directly in the cannabis business, multiple policy experts – and zero law enforcement professionals.
And the similarly-sized panel that will determine how the social equity share of the state tax haul from cannabis legalization gets targeted and spent will be similarly grounded in expertise and day-to-day experience. Though initially comprised of just 12 political officials – including two legislators from each party – the R3 Board will quickly round off that election-oriented core by adding four formerly incarcerated people, two violence-reduction experts, one community service provider who works specifically with immigrant populations, and some unspecified number of non-profit organization staffers representing the municipalities deemed eligible for the targeted investment of cannabis tax revenue.
The R3 program will still be vulnerable to exploitation. Civic leaders in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere have demonstrated recently how a cleverly drawn program map can siphon funds intended for neglected communities off into glitzy amenities for gentrifiers.
The financial fast-lane on licensing may be game-able, too, thanks to the third condition by which a business can seek the special SEA considerations and financing advantages. Any license-seeker who employs at least 10 people and can show that half their staff would meet the SEA requirements can apply under the fast-track system.
But the law also ensures that any licensee who benefits from the fee waivers, financing, and grant deals of the SEA programs cannot simply serve as a cut-out for silent partners from the lily-white world of boutique pot investor houses that dominate the scene in Colorado, California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. Someone who purchases an SEA-supported license from its original holder without fitting the SEA criteria themselves must repay the lending, waived fees, and other public subsidies targeted to black and brown families living in the ruins of the drug war.
Legal recreational cannabis sales will begin in Illinois on January 1. But anyone who was arrested or convicted for possessing or selling up to a pound of cannabis in the state in the past may petition the court to have that record expunged at any time. And the near-automated system of wiping out smaller possession cases will begin immediately as well.
“The amount of people they’re expunging is pretty large,” Nani said. “That’s immensely helpful, not just to people looking to get into the cannabis industry but to people looking to move on with their lives in other ways.”