A Response to NAACP's Opposition to Legalize Recreational Cannabis

by Tomasz Gliszewski, Founder

Two weeks ago I wrote about five ways "how not to screw up Illinois' burgeoning cannabis business", which was largely inspired by this opinion piece by the CEO of a cannabis company in Illinois.

Since the writing of that post, a majority of Illinois House Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of a resolution to slow down recreational cannabis legalization (a.k.a. regulation) to "give more time to consider the societal impact of and data from other states". Additionally, HB0895, a bill that would make the medical cannabis program permanent, is now being considered by the House.

A follow up document to a demand study commissioned by Senator Heather Steans and State Representative Kelly Cassidy was also published. The Cassidy-Steans study was criticized by Illinois NORML for being too conservative in its projections of demand while at the same time challenged by medical cannabis licensees for suggesting that more cultivation licenses are needed.

Furthermore, the Executive Director of the Illinois NAACP has taken a stance against legalizing recreational cannabis, asking the Illinois Black Caucus to oppose any legislation that legalizes adult-use. The NAACP does not, however, oppose medical cannabis use.

 

Haley's comments were recently used to justify a position that issuing new cultivation licenses is not necessary to meet the estimated demand of both the Illinois medical and recreational cannabis markets. By using the NAACP's stance on recreational cannabis and cherry-picking Haley's comment equating the legal cannabis industry to slavery, the Tribune article seems to suggest that equity does not necessarily need to be prioritized if the Illinois NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) does not even want cannabis to be legalized.

On a side note, I recently learned that backlash from the black community was at the crux of the matter regarding the opening of the only minority-owned cultivation facility and dispensary in Chicago (now Illinois Grown Medicine and Mission Dispensary). Unfortunately, unable to get buy-in from the community and strapped for cash, the group decided to sell a considerable stake in ownership of the licenses to a multi-state operator, which then opened IGM and Mission.

Why we partially agree with the NAACP

Many advocates will be quick to judge Haley, claiming she is uneducated about cannabis or a puppet of some greater conspiracy theory. While the NAACP does not speak for all people of color, the director does bring up some good points regarding recreational cannabis legalization:

1. Legalization may have a negative impact on black communities

Cannabis prohibition has caused a lot of suffering in the black community. We must address the real issue of trauma caused by prohibition and try to meet people where they are—not everyone has had a positive experience with cannabis. From being harassed or arrested for possession to having a loved one incarcerated for a cannabis-related conviction, the criminalization of cannabis has had a disproportionate, negative impact on the black community. This fact must be taken into consideration when developing the cannabis program; anything short of an equitable program is perpetuating racial economic inequality.

2. Tax revenue may not be proportionately distributed

While politicians tout the money-making potential from taxing cannabis sales, it's important to realize that driving cannabis prices up can dis-incentivize individuals from transitioning to the legal market. Furthermore, should a substantial amount of tax revenue be created, there's no guarantee that this will benefit poor communities. Rather, it may cause an even greater gap in income inequality, especially if costs or other barriers to start a licensed cannabis business remain high.

Chicago NORML has outlined a social equity proposal that acknowledges the need to distribute a larger share of tax revenues generated from recreational cannabis sales to disproportionately impacted areas. 

3. People may lose their jobs over cannabis consumption

Even after cannabis is legalized, employers may still choose to drug test their employees for THC, among other substances, as well as terminate employees who test positive for THC. Although medical patients using cannabis may be protected from termination in some cases, without proper legislation we leave many vulnerable populations susceptible to wage insecurity. People will continue to lose their jobs because of cannabis use, regardless of whether we legalize recreational cannabis. The least we could do is offer protection for cannabis use under state labor laws if we can't stop individual employers from testing for THC.

4. Legalization won't necessarily reduce minority arrests or arrests in general

How many people have had their second amendment rights violated due to "a smell" or convicted as felons for possessing an ounce of weed? Just because recreational cannabis becomes regulated, that doesn't prevent authorities from enforcing "prohibition 2.0" policies. For example, if the recreational bill only allows for one ounce to be possessed outside of one's home, that wouldn't necessarily cut down on policing—it may, in fact, amplify it.

Before, selling or growing cannabis was "illegal" and punishable by imprisonment; now, it's an honest living for Johnny and Susie. "Legalization" sounds great until you realize it looks a lot like extortion at worst and bureaucratic arrogance at best. In other words, dealers with untainted criminal records and enough capital to obtain a license will receive protection from the state, as well as permission to monopolize the market, while those too poor to get a license will bear the brunt of legalization.

5. Black participation/ownership may be limited

According to a report by the International Labor Organization, about 61 percent of the global workforce is engaged in the informal economy, with a higher concentration of informal employment happening in developing countries. It's estimated that the informal economy makes up at least 18 percent of the US GDP. However, these estimates are likely on the lower end, considering that surveys or questionnaires that would require someone to essentially admit to not reporting taxes may not always be accurate.

Those who are cultivating or selling cannabis in the "black market" are actually participating in the informal economy - not subject to taxation or government regulation. The "illegal" status of cannabis implies a high degree of risk/reward tradeoff but also offers no protection under the law. If the goal of cannabis legalization is to dissolve the illegal cannabis market, that could be accomplished in one of two ways—by creating opportunities and low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs to transition into the legal market or through stricter enforcement and more policing. We hope it will be the former.

6. We must release but also rehabilitate those unjustly incarcerated

Before companies are allowed to profit from recreational cannabis sales and the state is allowed to collect tax revenues from legal cannabis sales, cannabis-related criminal records should be automatically expunged, and those who have been imprisoned for cannabis-related charges should be released. The NAACP argues that releasing prisoners would not be enough, and we agree. There must be funding allocated to creating programs that will help rehabilitate those who have suffered from cannabis prohibition.

7. Legalization will make the 1% richer while the rest of us will continue to be poor

To be in the 1% you need about $10,000,000, and to be in the top 10% you need about $1,200,000. The median household income in the US is about $61,000, varying considerably by race and ethnicity. If the program only allows for the top 10% to participate, simply by making the fees high enough to exclude the other 90% from obtaining a cannabis business license, then the rich will get richer off cannabis legalization while the rest of us are left behind.

In conclusion, although we do not agree with all the statements the Illinois NAACP director has made on cannabis legalization, especially those related to scientific research surrounding the potential adverse effects of cannabis, we do believe that a slower, more thorough process to legalize, one that would take more of these factors into consideration, would be of benefit to us all. By rushing to legalize, without properly expanding both programs, we risk botching a successful program launch and further creating issues of inequity.