Cannabis conundrums

Pritzker's pot plans fizzle

The cannabis industry has failed minorities.

Just one percent of the state's growing facilities are owned by African Americans. Blacks control only three percent of marijuana retail outlets. Such dismal figures have prompted legislation aimed at increasing the number of cannabis businesses owned by African Americans, who are said to have suffered disproportionately in the war against drugs and so should get a leg up when it comes to growing and selling weed.

That's the story in Washington state, where recreational pot sales began six years ago. Illinois has zero cultivation centers or retail shops owned by African Americans.

Not that I ever would imbibe, but if I did consume marijuana, I would drive a bit further, perhaps pay a bit more, to do business with an African American-owned establishment, particularly if lured by an array of edibles, bud and concentrates not available elsewhere. In the Age of Woke, it is not necessarily a disadvantage to post "Black Owned" on advertisements, particularly if you stock better Blue Dream at better prices than anyone else. Ask a Seattle dispensary that boasted about being minority owned by virtue of former NBA star Shawn Kemp owning five percent of the franchise.

This is what capitalism looks like. That is what they tried in Washington state, where anyone who wanted one could get a license to grow or sell, and for cheap. Despite consternation about white people owning most of Washington's marijuana businesses, the percentage of African American pot proprietors roughly matches the percentage of the state's African American population, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Like Washington, Illinois is trying to do better, or at least that's what they say – a commission has been formed there and another has been proposed here. Our hole appears deeper while Illinois marijuana monopolists laugh their way to the bank.

Save for issuing pardons and expunging pot convictions, Gov. JB Pritzker has checked nary a box when it comes to legalizing pot on terms he claimed in 2019: This is about social equity, not money. But we haven't gotten social equity, whatever that might mean, nor have we gotten money.

Late last spring, the state announced that $31.5 million from marijuana taxes would be distributed for social programs to help communities wronged by the war on drugs. In Springfield, folks applied for money to rehab houses, with decisions from the state due by the end of December. Not a dime has been awarded. Meanwhile, retailers last year sold more than $1 billion worth of weed, with $669 million subject to taxes. Customers/patients holding state-issued cards spent more than $331 million on non-taxable medical cannabis.

Springfield, like other towns with pot shops, levies the maximum three percent local tax on recreational pot sales, with the state Department of Revenue dispersing $5.7 million to municipalities since July. In Springfield, half is supposed to go for projects aimed at promoting economic development in poor neighborhoods. How much have we gotten? The city won't say: Disclosing the amount would reveal to the city's two pot purveyors what the other is raking in, and that, the city says, is forbidden by state law. The city can't even spend the money, according to budget director William McCarty.

Brad Cole, director of the Illinois Municipal League, says that he isn't sure that cities can't spend pot tax revenue, but disclosing how much cities have collected is an issue for municipalities all over the state. "I've been trying to get an answer out of the governor's office for well over a month," Cole says. "I guess they just don't have an answer."

One answer would be granting more licenses to allow more than two pot purveyors in towns like ours, but Pritzker has failed at that. Forty growing licenses were supposed to have been issued by last summer and 75 retail dispensaries were supposed to have been licensed by last spring. The whole shebang screeched to a halt last fall, when it turned out that every finalist for a dispensary license was controlled by whites. The lame duck General Assembly didn't pass a so-called cannabis cleanup bill that would have allowed for an additional 75 dispensary licenses.

Fiscally, at least, Washington state hasn't suffered for its approach to pot – in 2019, it collected more than $390 million in pot taxes, or $51 per capita. Since sales began a year ago, Illinois has collected $175 million, or $13.85 per capita. That's better than Washington did during its first year, but the per-capita figure jumped to $25.50 during the second year as the state churned out licenses, and the take has doubled in four years despite neighboring Oregon and Canada legalizing pot. Amid pandemic, Illinois sales to out-of-state residents accounted for more than 25 percent of recreational sales last year, but that might not last. No state bordering Illinois has legalized pot, but recreational weed is legal in 15 states. Less than a decade ago, pot for pleasure was illegal everywhere.

Whether Illinois can match Washington, either in tax revenue or social equity, we'll know eventually. But perhaps capitalism should have been the first choice instead of engineered social progress that appears stalled.

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