Ill. mar­i­juana law aims to undo harm of drug war

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Second Front - By JOHN O’CON­NOR AP Po­lit­i­cal Writer

SPRINGFIEL­D, Ill. — When law­mak­ers crafted the law le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana in Illi­nois, they tried to make sure it would right what many see as past wrongs linked to the drug.

In ad­di­tion to ex­pung­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of crim­i­nal records for mar­i­juana ar­rests and con­vic­tions, the law’s ar­chi­tects added pro­vi­sions meant to ben­e­fit com­mu­ni­ties that have been the most ad­versely af­fected by law en­force­ment’s ef­forts to com­bat the drug.

The so-called so­cial eq­uity pro­vi­sions are ex­pected to help black ap­pli­cants, in par­tic­u­lar, as blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be ar­rested for mar­i­juana, the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union found. The law, which takes ef­fect Jan. 1, also es­tab­lished ways for qual­i­fied ap­pli­cants to pay lower li­cens­ing fees and get busi­ness loans and tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance. And it ear­marked part of mar­i­juana sales rev­enue for neigh­bor­hood de­vel­op­ment grants.

“On the sur­face, its tone and what it’s try­ing to do is ahead of any state that’s done this. They’re re­ally set­ting off in the right way,” said Kay­van Kha­lat­bari, a Board mem­ber of Mi­nor­ity Cannabis Busi­ness As­so­ci­a­tion, which has com­posed model laws out­lin­ing so­cial eq­uity pro­grams. He added that fol­low-through will be key: “We can’t just set this in mo­tion and set it free.”

Com­pa­nies that ap­ply for a li­cense to sell mar­i­juana will be judged on a 250-point scale, and those that qual­ify as so­cial eq­uity ap­pli­cants will get a 50-point bump.

There are three ways to qual­ify. First, the or­ga­ni­za­tion ap­ply­ing must be ma­jor­ity-owned by a per­son who has lived at least five of the past 10 years in an im­pov­er­ished area where there have been higher-than-av­er­age num­bers of mar­i­juana ar­rests. Se­cond, the ma­jor­ity owner or an im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­ber must have an ar­rest or con­vic­tion of a mar­i­juana of­fense el­i­gi­ble for ex­punge­ment. Fi­nally, for a com­pany with at least 10 em­ploy­ees, more than half must qual­ify in one of the first two ways.

Illi­nois is the 11th state to le­gal­ize recre­ational mar­i­juana. Cannabis sales could gen­er­ate $250 mil­lion for the state by 2022 and $375 mil­lion in 2024, ac­cord­ing to the state Rev­enue Depart­ment. Cam­paign­ing on le­gal­iza­tion last year, Demo­cratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker pre­dicted the in­dus­try could even­tu­ally bring in up to $1 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue.

Other states that le­gal­ized pot es­tab­lished eq­uity pro­grams, but none has distin­guished it­self yet.

Mas­sachusetts has one, but all but two of its 184 li­censes to sell pot were is­sued to white op­er­a­tors. Cal­i­for­nia cre­ated a $10 mil­lion fund to go toward help­ing so­cial eq­uity ap­pli­cants fi­nance mar­i­juana star­tups, but crit­ics de­rided the amount as pal­try.

The le­gal­iza­tion bal­lot question that Michi­gan vot­ers ap­proved last fall re­quires the state to “pos­i­tively im­pact” da­m­age done by anti-mar­i­juana law en­force­ment, but such vague pa­ram­e­ters leave a lot to bu­reau­cratic in­ter­pre­ta­tion, though of­fi­cials an­nounced in July that dis­pen­sary-op­er­a­tor li­censes would cost up to 60% less for qual­i­fied eq­uity ap­pli­cants.

No one knows how many Illi­nois ap­pli­cants will pur­sue so­cial eq­uity li­censes. There was no in­ten­tion to set a quota, said state Rep. Kelly Cas­sidy, one of two Chicago Democrats who led ef­forts to write Illi­nois’ law. But af­ter May 1, when li­censes from the first pool of eq­uity ap­pli­cants will be awarded, li­cens­ing will pause to al­low for an in­de­pen­dent re­view of so­cial eq­uity par­tic­i­pa­tion.

An­ton Seals Jr. plans to be a so­cial eq­uity ap­pli­cant. The co-founder of the non­profit Grow Greater En­gle­wood at­tempts to turn the Chicago neigh­bor­hood’s aban­doned lots into ur­ban farms. He plans to ap­ply for his com­pany OURS, for Or­ganic Ur­ban Re­vi­tal­iza­tion So­lu­tions.

“It makes to­tal sense for those of us, in par­tic­u­lar, who have been do­ing work in the com­mu­nity to trans­form and to re­vive and re­store spa­ces that have been im­pacted by poor pub­lic pol­icy,” Seals said. “Groups like mine ... should have a re­ally fair shot to get into this in­dus­try, to com­pete.”

Crit­i­cal are low-in­ter­est loans from what pro­po­nents es­ti­mate will be a $30 mil­lion fund to jump-start so­cial eq­uity op­er­a­tions. What held back un­der­served ap­pli­cants in other states is that they “didn’t have the cap­i­tal and they didn’t have the acu­men,” said Kha­lat­bari, of the Mi­nor­ity Cannabis Busi­ness As­so­ci­a­tion.

The money will come from med­i­cal cannabis op­er­a­tors, which, be­cause they’re es­tab­lished, get the first crack at the recre­ational li­censes be­ing awarded this fall. It’s not cheap. A dis­pens­ing-out­let li­cense re­quires a con­tri­bu­tion of up to $100,000 to the loan fund, based on re­cent sales. A cul­ti­va­tor pays up to $750,000.

Some are skep­ti­cal it will be enough. Wil­lie “J.R.” Flem­ing, di­rec­tor of the Chicago Anti-Evic­tion Cam­paign and a hope­ful so­cial-eq­uity ap­pli­cant, helped or­ga­nize the non­profit Hemp in the Hood to ask es­tab­lished mar­i­juana com­pa­nies “to share their wealth.”

“Not al­ways in cash, but in re­sources,” Flem­ing said, sug­gest­ing they share lawyers, ac­coun­tants, se­cu­rity con­sul­tants and more with eq­uity ap­pli­cants be­cause they got a jump on the mar­ket — and be­cause, Flem­ing adds, they don’t want to be on the wrong side of mi­nor­ity em­pow­er­ment.

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