Chicago’s Black aldermen have raised concern over racial issues in Illinois’ nascent recreational cannabis industry. A fraught city council meeting took place Wednesday, on the heels of the news that lawmakers in the nearby town of Evanston have linked cannabis tax revenue to reparations for the Black community. That move was seen as a creative tactic for ensuring that the state’s goals of social equity are met. At the Chicago meeting, local leaders expressed their displeasure that every recreational dispensary that has been approved by the government is run by a white man. 

Illinois’ first recreational cannabis stores are set to open their doors on January 1st. In Chicago, the first round of 11 business licenses went to pre-existing medical cannabis companies. 

West Loop alderman Walter Burnett Jr. does not see that as an appropriate outcome for an industry that, previously to legalization, saw a highly disproportionate number of people of color policed and incarcerated for their involvement in the marijuana business. In fact, he’s so firm on this point that he’s willing to flex his policy strength to rectify the situation. 

“If they don’t have an African-American partner don’t waste your time coming to see me, because I don’t even want to talk to them,” Burnett said of dispensaries looking to open in his ward. “Because I think you’re just being a racist in my face when you talk to me about this stuff and you don’t allow African-Americans to be your partner.”

Alderman Burnett didn’t mince words when it came to the white-ification of cannabis in the Windy City. “We don’t want to have folks be sharecroppers in this business,” he said. “We’re not just coming out of slavery and people just feeding us stuff or giving us stuff. We want our folks to be able to fish on their own, to feed themselves and to be in power.” 

The politician compared his exhortation that white cannabis entrepreneurs partner with Black professionals to the steps taken by Chicago’s large-sized construction companies. It’s not uncommon to see big, white-owned construction firms team up with contractors of color in order to get jobs while maintaining racial diversity in the industry. 

Representation in Cannabis is Crucial

In the case of cannabis, the need for Black representation among profit makers is even more marked. Chicago has long been the site of racially biased policing for cannabis-related offenses, even after the city decriminalized small scale possession in 2011. 

Burnett made it clear that lawmakers from communities of color will not be taking kindly to those who have forgotten this history and are now looking to profit off of legal cannabis. 

“These guys keep coming to me with these dumbed-down conversations like people are stupid, and it’s very insulting,” he said.

“I’m an African-American alderman representing a very diverse ward. I don’t mind other [ethnicities] getting a large piece of the pie,” he continued. “All I’m trying to do is make sure that the African-Americans get a piece of this pie.”

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