Cannabis prohibition has always been a race issue. Before the turn of the 20th century, cannabis tonics were popular amongst white Americans. Mixed into tinctures with other herbs and compounds, cannabis was sold as a cure for all sorts of ailments, from chronic pain and insomnia to morning sickness and hiccups.
Then, the industrial revolution drew immigrants looking for work, and the public perspective on cannabis began to shift. Fearing the influx of immigrants, white American strove to limit and control these populations using any tool they could. Many Middle Eastern and Latin immigrants brought their cultural practice of smoking cannabis recreationally, which white American lawmakers swiftly banned. Harsh penalties followed first the consumption of cannabis, then the possession and cultivation of cannabis.
White Americans continued to use cannabis throughout the 20th century without reproach, while Communities of Color around the U.S. were intensely disadvantaged as a result of cannabis prohibition. The profound effect of cannabis bans on BIPOC is evidenced in every city and state, but the most obvious case study is Chicago. Fortunately, Chicago is working hardest to turn the story on its head.
Chicago’s Cannabis Problem
In truth, cannabis was never Chicago’s problem — race was. As immigrants from other countries flooded to America’s shores to take advantage of industrial jobs and higher quality of living, Black Americans migrated out of the American South. Fleeing segregation and racial persecution, African Americans moved into urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest and West. Chicago saw a significant influx of Black families in the first half of the 20th century; in 1910, just 2 percent of the city’s population was Black, but by 1960, that figure jumped up to over 25 percent.
Unfortunately, many African Americans found the Chicago job market to be hostile, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead of the industrial jobs they expected, many BIPOC found work circumventing alcohol prohibition, distilling spirits, bootlegging, bartending and otherwise supplying booze. Many white Chicagoans eschewed these jobs because they technically broke the law, but they happily partook of the BIPOC labor. When alcohol prohibition ended, white bar distillers, distributors, bar owners and others retook the alcohol industry, leaving many Black communities without employment. Thus, many turned to supplying another illicit substance: cannabis.
African Americans have a long cultural legacy with cannabis, as many are descended from African groups who used cannabis as a psychoactive component of spiritual practice. Cannabis use in Black communities was largely ignored in the 18th and 19th centuries, but as immigrants of color from other nations brought their cultural cannabis consumption, white Americans’ restrictions on cannabis cultivation, sale, possession and use affected Black Americans, too. In fact, it didn’t take long for legal enforcement of cannabis prohibition to disproportionately affect Black communities. Though not all Black Chicagoans were involved with cannabis, either its trade or its use, all suffered from unjust treatment by legal authorities.
Within the past decade, research has found that a person of color is five to seven times more likely to experience a cannabis conviction than a white person and that three-quarters of cannabis arrests in Chicago are perpetrated against Black people. It is in this environment of racial disparity that Illinois introduced its recreational cannabis regulations, with social equity supposedly built in.
Chicago’s Social Equity Solution
Illinois was the first state to pass legal recreational cannabis regulations by legislature instead of by popular vote. Because of this, policymakers were able to develop more nuanced regulations, designed to address racial disparities caused by cannabis legalization elsewhere in the country. In many places, the end to cannabis prohibition had the same effect on Black communities as the end to alcohol prohibition — a sudden deprivation of income.
Thus, Illinois built social equity into its cannabis laws. To start, legalization expunged all low-level cannabis convictions, which led to nearly 500,000 records erased — a significant portion of which freed Black Chicagoans from their criminal records, giving them greater access to employment, housing and more. Next, Illinois created the Cannabis Social Equity Program, which assists communities disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition in leveraging weed legalization to their benefit. BIPOC entrepreneurs are prioritized for cannabis business licenses, and they have access to more resources for success, like business training and financial support. The result is that it is easier to find a Chicago dispensary in a Black community and boasting Black ownership than it is to find such a dispensary in another city in another state.
It is impossible to extricate the history of cannabis prohibition in Chicago from the history of Chicago’s Black communities. With work, Illinois’ social equity program could right the wrongs of a century of unjust prosecution and build stronger communities of color for the future.