The scent of lemon grass fills the room at Soul and Wellness in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, a shop that sells medicinal products and helps people apply for medical cannabis cards.
But it’s not the powerful scent that sets the business apart.
It’s Soul and Wellness’ African American owner.
As a black business owner in the legal medical marijuana world, Tiffany Reynolds is a rarity.
“I think it was imperative for me to open up a business like this,” she said. “One, because I’m able to educate my community … breaking that stigma because we still know that people frown upon cannabis.”
When Illinois issued the first licenses in 2015 for medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers, almost all the recipients were white. As Illinois moves closer to legalizing recreational marijuana, industry advocates are urging lawmakers to include racial equity components that open the door for a more diverse marketplace — things like expanding types of marijuana business licenses and implementing easier expungement for marijuana convictions.
The Chicago chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, was created to help on this front. Chicago NORML trains and empowers people of color to work in the cannabis industry.
Kiana Hughes is education director for the group. She said when the state was getting started with medical marijuana, she could easily spot all the black people at industry conferences.
“It would literally be like we were the four or five chocolate chips in a big ol’ bowl of vanilla ice cream,” Hughes said.
Even now, four years into medical marijuana, none of the state’s highly regulated dispensaries or cultivation centers are black-owned, Hughes said.
Barriers to entry
There are several reasons for that. For one, the state requires dispensary applicants to have at least $400,000 in liquid assets, and it charges tens of thousands of dollars in application and licensing fees.
Hughes said another major barrier into the market is the historically high rates of African Americans convicted on marijuana-related charges. That’s led to people having a hard time finding a good job, getting student loans or finding housing.
“You cannot have the war on drugs target specific communities and then, when we flip the switch to a commercialized new economy, cut those very same people out of the new emerging market,” said Kathie Kane-Willis, director of policy and advocacy for the Chicago Urban League.
The state decriminalized possession of small amounts of weed in 2016. But according to data from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, about 54% of the state’s cannabis-related prison admissions in 2017 were African Americans.
Kane-Willis said illegal sale and consumption of pot is relatively even across race groups.
“[It’s] really important for people to understand that just because black and brown people are disproportionately arrested, [that] doesn’t mean black and brown people are disproportionately responsible for the sales,” she said.
“More than just legal consumers”
Chicago NORML has been watching other states struggle to fit racial equity into marijuana laws. When California went legal last year, the cost of entry into the market continued to be a major barrier. Lawmakers brought in additional legislation after the fact, like grant programs to start a business and easier ways to expunge low-level marijuana convictions.
Hughes said her group has been meeting with Illinois lawmakers sponsoring recreational use bills.
She said her goal is to “allow us to be something more than just legal consumers.” Hughes said they want to be “actual entrepreneurs and actual producers and people that are making money in this industry.”
The group is proposing things like automatic expungements, lower costs to start cannabis operations and apprenticeship programs. Hughes said they’d like to see marijuana businesses in blighted communities and for the tax revenue to be invested in the areas that were most impacted by the war on drugs.
“If you’re really looking to create this gold-standard recreational-use bill, then you can create a gold-standard social equity program,” she said.
Hughes said Illinois has the chance to get right what other states have gotten wrong.