Half Baked Legalization Reflects Structural Inequalities of the System

Ohio’s failed attempt to legalize cannabis last year has highlighted critical issues in the nationwide push for reformed drug policy, and brought to mind similar frustrations with the effort to establish a medical marijuana program in Illinois. In her recent piece, Why I Opposed Half-Baked Legalization in Ohio, Cassie Young touched on some of the consequences of ceding “good policy to political expediency,” arguing that a nuanced analysis of policy is essential if we wish to avoid repackaging the same structural inequalities that have characterized prohibition for decades.

 

 


 

Illinois has a population of about 12.6 million, and in February of 2015, Gov. Rauner awarded contracts for growers and dispensers of medicinal cannabis, hoping to rapidly kickstart a program that had struggled for years to gain any momentum. The awarded contracts left the right to cultivate solely with the 18 businesses whose applications were approved; and among the winners were a fundraiser for the previous Gov. Quinn, the former state director of the Department of Agriculture, and a retired County Judge well known for his tough stance on drugs. And if that isn’t alarming enough, many of the awardees had invested large sums of money into lobbying for the bill, which strictly prohibits home cultivation.

 

Dan Linn, the executive director of Illinois’ NORML chapter, said that he would “give very good odds we will never see a medical marijuana program in Illinois that allows patients or caregivers to grow their own medicine.”

 

Linn worked for over a decade to pass medical marijuana legislation in Illinois. According to this article, he remembers there being “a good amount of money” thrown at the effort by businesses looking to profit off of the new industry after the bill was initially introduced to the senate in 2009.

 

“All of a sudden there were a bunch of paid lobbyists there with access to capital,” Linn stated. “The [state-sanctioned] cultivators would tell you it’s extremely dangerous to allow patients or caregivers to grow their own, that there could be pesticides, harmful chemicals, mold, or bugs in plant material,” he explains.

 

Now, can you imagine if it were illegal to grow our own food, or brew our own beer? I mean that’s absurd, right? But honestly, is “illegally cultivated” cannabis really any less absurd?

 

In my opinion, any “reform” that seeks to privatize the cultivation of cannabis is subject to scrutiny. If the motivation for adopting new drug policy is in fact for public well-being, then accessibility, and ensuring that all individuals have the right to grow their own medicine, should be central to the legislation. The fact that this has not been seriously considered in Illinois, and that many of the businesses that were awarded cultivation rights had aggressively lobbied against it, signifies to me a lack of transparency and credibility.

 

The campaign in Ohio also brought to light some of the ways in which the movement for legalization excludes not only to those who lack access to capital, but also those who have historically been the most aggressively criminalized for using cannabis. The fact that the legal marijuana industry is dominated by predominately white men isn’t news to most, and yet despite this widespread acknowledgement we are continuing to see growing racial disparities in “legal” states such as Colorado and Washington, while white folks cash in big on the new economic opportunity.

 

In 2012 Chicago passed an ordinance that sought to decriminalize cannabis possession. In theory this would seem like a positive step towards progressive reform, but this legislation serves as a perfect example of how poorly thought-out policy can continue to perpetuate systemic inequalities under the guise of “progress.”

 

The ordinance decriminalized the possession of marijuana for any amount under 15 grams, but left the choice to make an arrest up to the discretion of police officers. Since the ordinance was enacted, 7 out of every 10 arrests made for possession of small amounts of cannabis have resulted in arrests, 89% of which were black people, 8% Latino, and 2% white—and black neighborhoods, such as East Garfield Park, have seen up to 72 times more arrests than their white counterparts. We know that cannabis use is equal across racial lines, yet these stark disparities clearly demonstrate that what’s written on paper means next to nothing for those most impacted by a system that implicitly prioritizes the interests of one group over another.

 

This said, a bill was passed at the end of July that attempts to address these disparities. Statewide, police can no longer make arrests for possession under 10 grams. While certainly a step in the right direction, I would argue that such changes are simply cosmetic. Nobody deserves to go to jail for using or cultivating marijuana, medicinal or otherwise.

 

Not even considering the outrageous fees required by the state simply to have applied for a start-up in the industry, we can see the many other ways that economically and socially disadvantaged groups are structurally pushed out. One such example is apparent in the process of becoming a legal cannabis patient, which requires extensive criminal background checks. Such policies are not unique to Illinois, but when we take into account the large number of people of color who have criminal records due to prior non-violent drug offenses, the exclusive and racial undertones become apparent.

 

Already, data shows that black people in Illinois are 7.5 times more likely to be arrested than white people for cannabis possession statewide. If people of color are largely barred from legally participating in the marijuana industry due to economic and legal barriers, this disparity is certain to grow even larger unless we adapt realistic policy that makes cannabis legal and accessible for all people, without exception.

 

Since it was signed into law in 2014, Illinois’ medical marijuana program has been subject to a number of challenges and shortcomings. Even in spite of much recent reform, it’s no surprise that the number of patients enrolled in the program has only just surpassed 9,000. To me, such low numbers are a clear indication of policy that is either failing to meet the needs of the public, or that was never designed to meet such needs in the first place.

 

If we are to assume that Illinois lawmakers have the interests of the public in mind when drafting legislation, it makes little sense that a state facing an $8 billion deficit and an ongoing budget crisis* threatening to close schools and universities across the state is so hesitant to invest fully into an industry that has brought economic prosperity to states that have legalized cannabis use and cultivation for every adult, regardless of their health or economic status.

 

For example, in 2015 Colorado collected more than $135 million in taxes and fees from legal cannabis sales. Of that, $35 million went towards funding public schools and another $4.5 million was put into other youth programs and educational opportunities. The remaining $95.5 million was allocated towards typical public services and social programs that taxpayers expect. In contrast, in Cook County (IL) alone, roughly $78 million is spent annually on enforcing marijuana laws—that is twice the amount of the budgets of the City Council and Cook County Board combined.

 

So what gives? Anyone taking a critical look at the numbers can clearly see that full legalization is a logical step towards economic growth and public wellbeing, and that continuing to approach reform as a single-issue is going to result in poorly drafted policy that creates further disparities.

 

I won’t claim to know what the country will look like when the push for legalization is all said and done, but it’s clear to me that the “half-baked legalization” we’re seeing take root across the country is a growing trend that reflects the structural inequalities inherent to the system. This system will continue to impose itself on the health and wellbeing of its citizens until we demand meaningful changes in policy that are not simply cosmetic, but that actually give ordinary people agency over their own lives.