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Why does marijuana front the bill for the new Black reparations law?

Monday evening, March 22, 2021, Evanston Alderman approved a first-of-its-kind municipal reparations program for Black residents in an 8-1 vote. The law is designed to give reparations to Black residents who have faced codified discrimination through housing policies in Chicago neighborhoods through money gathered from donations and marijuana tax revenue.

Many believe this is a start of a domino effect that can happen across the United States. They have confidence in its expansion into more legislation like it. Some, however, feel that this law falls short of repairing the continued persecution of Black populations, even as it pertains to marijuana.

Finally, a Black reparations program

The housing market favors residents who can afford it. Thus this juxtaposed to the many who want a “bottom-up” resolution.

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A pro-reparations sign is posted outside a home in Evanston’s 5th Ward, March 23, 2021. Evanston aldermen approved Monday the first expenditures in the city’s municipal reparations program. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

The reparation program was in the planning stages since 2019. It has a cap of $10 million which will be funded mainly by the recreational marijuana sales tax revenue at a 3 percent rate. Plus, donations of about $21,340.

Nonetheless, this program is limited to helping those with housing in Chicago. Yet, it opens up the critique to hypocritical nuanced dealings of white supremacy through the “War on Drugs” and policing in America.

Marijuana laws in the U.S.

Ironically, marijuana sales across Illinois hit $1 billion in 2020. What’s more, the 80 recreational marijuana dispensaries in the state combined sold nearly $87 million in weed products last month.

And, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, about $12 million more than November.

In fact, Illinois happens to be one of 15 states to have a law allowing the sales of recreational marijuana. While over a quarter of the year’s recreational marijuana sales went to residents from outside state lines, 30 dispensaries are preparing to open under the new Illinois legislation.

Up to 75 new recreational licenses are likely to be granted with an agreement from the state. Not to mention, this would be allowing for hundreds of unsuccessful applicants to try and qualify.

A 3 percent tax and a $10 million cap appear as a fraction in comparison to the numbers of Black people charged and incarcerated for possession of marijuana. Often, charges rise to intent to distribute, harming the trajectory of young Black lives.

The Cook County State’s Attorney office has declined to prosecute most cases. Particularly, those with non-violent offenses of low-level cannabis possession of 30 grams or less.

This conditioning went on even before the Cannabis Regulation Tax Act and now with the new law.

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Steven Stelter, president of the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs, expresses his concerns about legalizing adult recreational marijuana at a Sept. 28, 2019 marijuana forum hosted by West Suburban Chamber of Commerce. (Hank Beckman / Pioneer Press)

The Chicago Police Department

The Chicago Police department and the mayor’s office have made clear the changes to marijuana laws. Still, the records show otherwise.

Black men are still arrested at a rate higher than their white male counterparts. Records from December alone show dozens of those arrested who qualify for expungement of their non-violent offense.

Kenny Myles was once arrested for a marijuana infraction in 2007 by the northwest suburban police department in Chicago. He was charged with possessing 7 grams of marijuana. This included a misdemeanor and a charge for manufacture and intent to deliver another 200 plus grams, a felony.

Myles was then fired from work and was unable to rent an apartment with a felony on his record. He also lost his federal financial aid halfway through his undergraduate degree for the conviction, delaying his graduation several years. 

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Kenny Myles, shown on Dec. 27, 2019, was once arrested for a marijuana infraction. He has since earned his master’s degree in accounting and is applying to open a marijuana dispensary with his wife and a business partner. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Now a recipient of a Master’s degree, Myles and his wife are applying to go into the marijuana dispensary business in Aurora, Illinois. His record has since been expunged for the manufacturing charge but not the possession charge.

At least, Myles is allowed to qualify as a social equity applicant for a dispensary license.

Who fits the criteria? Reading between the lines

Social equity applicants must meet one of three criteria. Either, including a prior charge that deems eligible for expungement under new legalization, living in a community disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs with a high marijuana-arrest rate or rate of people released from prison with specific marijuana charges.

With that said, Black residents are seven times more likely to be arrested than white residents. In fact, 11,000 pardons for low-level cannabis convictions were granted by Governor JB Pritzker in the first phase of a 770,000 person pardon agenda.

Ald. Cicely Fleming, of Evanston Alderman of the 9th Ward, cast the single vote against the municipal reparations program. She said “What we have here before us tonight, I would counter, is a housing program with the title reparations,” to the Chicago Tribune.

Ald. Robin Rue Simmons of the 5th ward in Evanston first proposed the reparations initiative. And, on Monday, March 22 she called the approval.

“It is, alone, not enough. We all know that the road to repair and justice in the Black community is going to be a generation of work. It’s going to be many programs and initiatives, and more funding.”

Robin Simmons, The Chicago Tribune 2021
black reparations
Evanston Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, shown March 16, 2021, first proposed Evanston’s reparations fund in 2019. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty-AFP)

Simmons went on to say she wants “people to dictate the terms of how they are repaired.” Evanston resident, Rose Cannon says “I want reparations like any Black person in this city does,” in favor of cash payments.

Racial disparities still loom large in Chicago

Furthermore, $400,000 in funding is directed from the city’s Local Reparations Fund to a housing program. It awarded eligible individuals up to $25,000.

Seemingly, this doesn’t provide the coverage needed for those who aren’t in the housing market. White households in Chicago own their homes at a 74 percent rate. And, the homeownership for Black people is 39 percent, a report on racial homeownership gap, recorded in 2018 by Urban Wire.

Qualifications for the reparations bear another barrier for the Black people. Applicants must have “origins in any of the Black racial and ethnic groups of Africa,” states a memo on the legislation.

Meaning, you would have to be or have been a Black resident of Evanston between 1919-1969, or a direct descendant. Experiencing housing discrimination from the city’s policies or practices after 1969 will also allow you reparations.

The incoming Evanston mayor term starts this May. And Daniel Biss issued a statement the day before the municipal reparations program was announced.

“Reparations is a huge, difficult, and complex project that seeks to address the damage done by white supremacy, one of the great prolonged evils in human history. It will not be ‘solved’ on the first try. On the contrary, we will have to try many different approaches, listen with an open mind to learn from what works and what needs to be changed, and adjust our strategy on an ongoing basis.”

Daniel Biss 2021
black reparations
In Aurora, the state’s second-largest city, arrests related to marijuana possession, delivery, manufacture, and other crimes dropped from 659 in 2015 to 202 in 2018, police department data shows. (Steve Lord/The Beacon-News)

The Black reparations program

Moreover, a resolution on the programs effort reads:

“…revitalizing, preserving, and stabilizing Black/African-American owner-occupied homes in Evanston, increasing homeownership and building the wealth of Black/African-American residents, building intergenerational equity amongst Black/African-American residents, and improving the retention rate of Black/African-American homeowners in the City of Evanston,”

Racial disparities in a 2013 report on marijuana possession arrests were highlighted by the ACLU. They include concerns that this can continue under the new legislation. And, the law legalizing marijuana for recreational users remains an issue for consumption in public and transportation. 

Marijuana may be a way to relieve the trauma of an oppressive government toward Black people. Considering the war on drugs that hindered generations post-slavery.

In this case, the percentage of marijuana sales taxes combined with the reparations fund is attempting to rectify a history of redlining in the Chicago housing market against Black residents.

Look out for this article on PAGE magazine.