Before Chicago’s mayoral runoff election on April 2, 2019 between Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, 420WindyCity.com reached out to both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot to find out how they would handle cannabis in Chicago. Preckwinkle’s campaign didn’t respond to our emails. Lightfoot’s, on the other hand, offered some thoughts on how she would address the issue in a rapidly shifting legal and cultural climate.
While we weren’t persuaded to support someone just because they acknowledged our existence, this openness to questions from a startup publication (hey, follow us on Twitter!) reflects well on Lightfoot’s organization, at least if they subscribe to the theory that all publicity is good publicity. On election night, Lightfoot had $3 million less than Preckwinkle in her war chest. The Tribune, for one, expected that Preckwinkle’s stronger union backing would give her a better ground game. Despite these and other apparent disadvantages, Lightfoot’s communications team found a few minutes to fire off a quotation from the one-time dark horse. With that sort of efficiency and media savviness, it’s no surprise that she netted more than 73% of the vote:
“I support legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana. We need to make sure that in drafting the authorizing legislation, we are mindful of the experiences of other states where legalization has occurred, like Colorado and Oregon. Furthermore, I support efforts to make sure that minority communities that have been ravaged by the War on Drugs have an opportunity to benefit from legalization in terms of receiving licenses, placement of grow operations and jobs. We also must be diligent and continue the hard work of keeping these drugs out of the hands of our kids.”
Aside from the first sentence, low on specifics and packed with clichés—in short, politician-speak, this statement would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
In much the same way that President Obama quickly “evolved” on the issue of gay marriage, Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans throughout the country are drifting towards decriminalization or some form of legalization—almost always short of full legalization, of course. When it comes to various proposals for limited legalization, one can’t help but ask: cui bono? Are marijuana industry lobbyists trying to distort the market in favor of their clients? Are politicians seeking to reassure the law-and-order Reagan Democrats in their constituency that all hell will not, break loose if the average Illinoisan walks boldly and freely, spliff in hand, through our streets and darkened alleys? They are already doing that since possession of small quantities of cannabis was decriminalized in 2016, so what is the harm in making the experience a little less paranoid, particularly for those in the black or Hispanic communities?
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s second cousin Joseph “Joby” Pritzker sits on the board of the Marijuana Policy Project. Additionally, Joby’s venture capital firm, Tao Capital, has made heavy investments in the marijuana-related companies MJ Freeway and PAX Labs. That doesn’t necessarily mean Governor Pritzker’s much-touted Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA) is compromised by marijuana industry interests. It is telling, however, that State Senator Patricia Van Pelt was removed as a co-sponsor after aggressively promoting marijuana investment schemes on her social media accounts. Previous generations of Chicago politicos wielded their clout a little more subtly. Side-note: would Marvel Comics have legal standing to sue Van Pelt over the name of her company, WaKanna, given its suspicious similarity to Wakanda?
The draft CRTA emphasizes equity, devoting 25% of tax revenue to a new Restoring Our Communities Fund that is meant to redistribute money to communities hard-hit by the Drug War. It also offers a loan program for businesses with majority ownership from individuals who have been arrested or convicted on marijuana-related charges or “who have resided for at least 5 of the preceding 10 years in a disproportionately impacted area.” Another side-note: We wonder how many middle-class hipsters from the suburbs have lived in Logan Square, Pilsen, Humboldt Park, etc. long enough to qualify.
The bill would also heavily restrict ownership, limiting any “person or entity” to 3 cultivation centers and 10 dispensing organizations. Since this is Illinois, we eagerly await some sleight-of-hand from ambitious entrepreneurs (e.g., Person X owns 10 dispensaries and his brother just happens to own another 10—not to mention the 10 owned by his second cousin out in Gurnee, and so on and so forth). Interestingly, neither MJ Freeway, which designs “cannabis compliance software,” nor the vaporizer company PAX Labs would be affected by any of the bill’s anti-competitive restrictions.
As the bill stands, medical cannabis cultivators and dispensaries get a head start on securing licenses, though they would face significant permit fees and development fund fees. Predictably, these early entrants into the marketplace have also been behind the push to restrict competition against themselves by limiting the number of new licenses issued.
Here’s the leadership team of Green Thumb Industries, one of the top donors to the Illinois Relief Fund PAC that represents medical cannabis businesses in the state. And here’s the teamat another top donor, Cresco Labs. WCCC, LLC, which owns Windy City Cannabis, is led by Steve Weisman, an alumnus of the elite Francis Parker School and the University of Chicago’s law school and business school as well as Lehman Brothers(!) and white shoe law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP. Is it possible that these economically privileged persons not-of-color want to stack the deck against new entrants into the market, of color or otherwise?
As of press time, the text of the bill is still up in the air as Pritzker and Springfield legislators seek to appease various interest groups. The bill’s provisions for expunging cannabis-related criminal records have proven especially controversial. Yet Illinois is particularly desperate for revenue, and any version of the bill would deliver that. If it isn’t passed this year, it’ll probably make it through in the future. Does anyone think it’s substantially less ethical than legalized sports betting or other vice-fueled schemes to address the state’s budget woes?
Which brings us back to Lightfoot. What’s the argument against trusting her on marijuana? For one thing, when she was Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1996 until 2002, her caseload included drug crimes. Without thoroughly investigating her record, we can’t confidently say whether she was particularly harsh or lenient by the standards of U.S. attorneys at that time. More fundamentally, however, it’s a little unfair to fault Lightfoot for doing her job—one which did not come with the nebulous, donor-friendly “aldermanic privilege” that Preckwinckle championed.
It will be easier to judge Lightfoot’s record on marijuana, now that the CRTA passed and goes into effect next year. Will the Chicago Police Department play by the new rules? Will Chicago pass local ordinances that significantly restrict dispensaries or other marijuana-related establishments? Will black and Hispanic communities get a big slice of the pie (and if so, will it just go to people who are already rich and well-connected?) In the end, who will make money off of marijuana—and how? We can’t yet answer those questions definitively, but we may have a better idea in 2023 when Lightfoot comes up for reelection.
Give Lightfoot—and Springfield—some time. Maybe then you’ll want to light one up for Lightfoot.