“Not a single dispensary”: The Fight for Freedom in Illinois’ War on Drugs

 /  Feb. 24, 2022, 10:05 a.m.


On a sunny mid-August afternoon, Equity and Transformation (EAT) founder Richard Wallace leans back in his car seat and shrugs at the results of Illinois’s cannabis dispensary lottery. 

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation had announced the results of the Social Equity Justice Involved Lottery on August 5, which granted cannabis dispensary licenses to 55 lucky Social Equity Applicants. The conditional licenses, in theory, were an effort to encourage inclusivity in the predominantly white-owned cannabis industry, promising greater accessibility to minority-owned businesses. On August 19, another Illinois lottery granted 75 more licenses to businesses from underrepresented neighborhoods. It was meant to be celebratory, a win for Black- and Brown-owned shops.

Wallace, however, was rather unimpressed. 

“I didn’t have a reaction,” he admits. “No amount of licenses is going to complete our struggle for drug war reparations. It’s currently not getting better for survivors of the War on Drugs because of dispensary licenses.”

A formerly incarcerated person himself, Wallace finds the state’s efforts to further diversity in the cannabis industry too shallow. For Wallace and other Chicago community leaders, news that solely focuses on progressive steps in the cannabis industry largely avoids the history of a particular violence inflicted on Chicago’s Black community: the War on Drugs. 

The War primarily works within the system of incarceration and police surveillance. In Illinois, two-thirds of the 35,000 prisoners released annually come from the same seven zip codes in the South and West Sides of Chicago. According to a 2008 study, of the drug offenders returning to their Chicago homes, 92% were Black. The residents of these South Side and West Side neighborhoods, too, report lower rates of trust toward the Chicago Police Department than their Northern counterparts. In a December 2021 survey, the numbers were 52-54 (meaning, 5.2 to 5.4 out of 10), compared to 63-64 (6.3 to 6.4 out of 10), respectively.

Fifty years since its conception, the War on Drugs has been widely regarded as a failure by 83 percent of Americans, with 65 percent of them calling for an end to the policy. Some estimate that the crackdown has cost United States taxpayers over $1 trillion. In 2015 alone, the federal government spent more than $3.3 billion to incarcerate people on drug charges, for which US prisons now hold up to 500,000 incarcerated people at any given time. Black and Brown communities often have no space to grieve as they continue to face racially motivated drug crackdowns. 2020 brought these attitudes into the national spotlight: an unconscious Breonna Taylor was murdered during a drug raid and post-mortem accusations asserted that THC, not Derek Chauvin, killed George Floyd.

“We are haunted by the trope of the drug addict,” Wallace observes. “It works in the process of criminalizing the [Black person] so well that it dehumanizes us, no matter the circumstance. It’s worked that way for forty, fifty years now. I’m not fighting for social equity because I want people to use drugs all the time. No, we are in this because we have said for decades that we want the government to stop arresting and locking up our people.”

Cracking down

Fifty years ago last summer, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. Seeking reelection amidst the political controversies of the Vietnam War, Nixon moved to criminalize heroin and marijuana to create scapegoats out of “hippies” and Black people. According to former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman, the War on Drugs was a political assault that would “disrupt those communities… arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

While Ehrlichman’s comment, published in HARPER twenty two years after the interview, has been contested by his children, the War on Drugs indeed disrupted major cities, separating families, taking students out of schools, and locking desperate fathers behind bars. In the 1970s, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller faced two crises in New York City: a rampant heroin crisis and a homicide rate four times higher than it is in the city today. Initially a champion of job training, housing assistance, and drug rehabilitation, Rockefeller infamously turned to embrace a zero-tolerance policy in 1973, when he enacted what would become one of the blueprints for the modern system of mass incarceration: the Rockefeller Drug Laws. These laws mandated sentences from 15 years up to life in prison for the possession of any narcotic, including heroin and cocaine; life sentences for people who committed a violent crime under the influence of illegal narcotics; and adult sentencing for teenage dealers. In other words, drug dealers, drug addicts, and casual recreational users all deserved maximum punishment. 

Rockefeller defended his about-face to harsh punitive measures, promising the public that his drug laws were a last resort decision to battle addiction in New York.

“This is a time for brutal honesty regarding narcotics addiction,” the governor pleaded with the public. “In this State [of New York], we have tried every possible approach to stop addiction and save the addict through education and treatment— that we could rid society of this disease and dramatically reduce mugging on the streets and robbing in the homes.” He used Black vernacular to appeal to his constituents of color: “Let’s be frank—let’s ‘tell it like it is.’ The crime, the muggings, the robberies, the murders associated with addiction continue to spread a reign of terror. Whole neighborhoods have been as effectively destroyed by addicts as by an invading army.”

The Rockefeller Drug Laws inspired an influx of mass incarceration beyond New York, and Chicago took one of the most severe approaches. Abolitionists Ruthie Gilmore and Mariame Kaba identify the carceral system as a structure of racial capitalism, which displaces people deemed an unwanted “surplus” to society, while legal scholar Michelle Alexander marks this removal of people from society as the “new Jim Crow.” Between the years 1980 and 2000, Illinois built one additional new prison annually in its rural communities. Experiencing an “exceptionally aggressive” incarceration boom, Illinois doubled its prison population from the 1970s to the 1980s, then more than doubled it again by the closing of the twentieth century. The incarceration of “surplus” people led to more than 40,000 arrests and 3,000 convictions in Illinois for cannabis possession in 2012. 

More recently, as reported by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), the possession of a controlled substance, or the manufacture and delivery of controlled substances can qualify as anything from a misdemeanor to a Class 1 felony, depending on the type of drug (e.g. synthetic opiates, opium, anabolic steroids, marijuana) and quantity involved. In 2020, Illinois was  identified by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as one of the states with the highest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates, with Black people 7.5 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts in 2018. In Cook County alone, $78 million was spent in 2011 to arrest and prosecute people for marijuana charges. Totaling over 33,000 arrests in 2010, Cook County led the nation in most marijuana arrests of any county, with Kings County (NY), the Bronx, and Los Angeles trailing behind.

The human cost: Chicago’s West Side

These statistics tell only half the story of the War on Drugs as it cracked down on Illinois. To Wallace, politics is far more personal. He recalls former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform proposal in 2012, which gave the police the option to issue possession tickets instead of outright arresting people in possession of marijuana. 

“We are not talking about decriminalization,” Emanuel had reminded Chicago aldermen. “We are talking about holding people accountable.” 

Wallace and his organization Equity and Transformation (EAT) focus their efforts on West Garfield Park, one of the Chicago neighborhoods most directly targeted by the 2012 marijuana reform. While the overall rate of cannabis possession arrests has declined since, East and West Garfield Park actually experienced an increase in police surveillance and possession arrests immediately following the reform. Officers, some of whom are temporarily assigned or new, feel pressure to subdue prevalent gang violence and dangerous drug trafficking rings. In that process, as Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. told The Chicago Reader, they end up overdoing their duty, stopping “the guy who’s walking to the store for some soda pop, or a lady who turns out to be a nurse.”

Wallace described everyday people being jailed for minor cannabis offenses. Yet, the physical removal of people from their homes goes deeper than jail time: some people vanish from the streets for longer, not seen again until years later.

For Chicago, these disappearances total up to around seven thousand people in one interrogation facility alone. A Guardian investigation in 2015 revealed that an interrogation facility in Homan Square held more than 7,000 people in an interrogation warehouse between 2004 and 2015—6,000 of the detainees were Black, and only 0.94% of them were allowed to have attorneys present. Drug possession charges were eventually brought in around 5,100 of the arrests. Notoriously, the detained people were hidden from Chicago Police Department booking databases, and some were mentally and physically tortured into giving false confessions. 

“The average per capita income in West Garfield Park is around $11,730 a year,” Wallace explained. “Our folks are barely making it on rent alone. Match that with the average person in the Near West Side who wants to get cannabis from downtown. If you live in West Garfield Park, making $11,000 to take care of your family, how can you defend spending $60 on one gram of weed at a dispensary when those $60 can get you groceries for one more week, one more dinner at your table, right? It’s impossible to choose the weed. These folks are forced to engage in street economies, too, when times get more desperate. The police surveillance and possession arrests are misled responses to poverty. It completely misses the point. We don’t need incarceration to eradicate street dealers, but compensation and programs for survivors of the War on Drugs.”

West Garfield has had its share of violence in the War on Drugs—so much, in fact, that the media dubbed it and its surrounding area “Heroin Highway.” Its unfortunate reputation derives from locals—and nearby suburbanites—driving or walking up to illegal drug markets. The Eisenhower Expressway and the Green and Blue Lines provide easy access, and people who lack other employment opportunities have turned to the drug trade as a desperate, but potent, source of income. In 2019, 35 people were charged with heroin and fentanyl trafficking, with one customer of the trade suffering from what would become a fatal overdose in May 2018. 

Violence Interrupters executive director Tio Hardiman grew up in West Side Chicago’s the Henry Horner Homes, nineteen 10-story buildings that were managed by the Chicago Housing Authority until the demolition of the last standing mid-rise building in 2008. There were little efforts by the state to assist the Henry Horner residents—the area did not even have a grocery store when Hardiman resided there—who often became victims of stigmatization, viewed as welfare queens, unruly teen gang members, and predatory drug-addicted monsters by outsiders. His peace initiative, Violence Interrupters, works to prevent gang violence in underserved communities, including West Garfield Park and Englewood, by referring high-risk youth to employment, mental health, and educational services.

“A lot of the youth in the West Side need help, not stigma,” Hardiman emphasizes. “Escalating drug and gun violence is often fueled by cultural conditioning. These young men are scared and want to protect their families. Sometimes, in the neighborhood, it means resorting to fighting to live another day. It’s tribalism, and I see it as a public health problem. That’s why it is important to keep the youth engaged, to give them resources to stay away from violence. If they do choose violence, we have to be there not to see them as criminals who slipped through the cracks of society, but to give them a safety net before it’s too late.”

In the zip code 60624, which includes West Garfield Park, there were 52 recorded opioid-related deaths in 2017, the highest number in the state. For the community, which also had the highest homicide rate and lowest life expectancy (68 years) of Chicago’s neighborhoods in 2014, these tragedies reflected the damage unleashed by Illinois’s decades-old fight with the War on Drugs. For many, the drug trade was not a choice. It was a matter of survival—one that could rake in over $10,000 a day, in a community where the median annual household income is just barely over $24,000.

Hardiman stresses time and time again that while the open-air drug trade indeed haunts Chicago, most Chicagoans are not involved with trafficking. Even so, he notices a blatant tendency to associate the Black identity with a racist caricature of the addicted, destructive neighbor, even as Illinois profits from a lucrative recreational drug industry.

“Big time businessmen were the first in line to secure recreational marijuana licenses in Illinois. That’s what happened in Chicago. Today, not a single damn dispensary is African American owned in Chicago. Our community began to raise our voices. We organized press conferences, we speak out every chance we have to ask that we are part of the equation for marijuana justice. Most of us want to see violence in the Near West Side reduced, gone, even.”

The promise of reparations

Wallace also places hopes in restorative, community-led efforts to dismantle the carceral system and bring resources back to high-risk neighborhoods like West Garfield Park. EAT’s pilot program, the Chicago Future Fund, advocates for the diversion of police funding directly into underserved neighborhoods like West Garfield Park. EAT has partnered with the public charity Fund for Guaranteed Income (F4GI) for funding.

“This is a reparations campaign for survivors of the Drug War,” Wallace explains. “We focus on successful re-entry for those who were harmed by state crackdowns. We use [the UN’s] definition of reparations, which has five components: restoration of human rights, harm compensation, rehab, public acknowledgment [and satisfaction], and a promise of non-repetition. I see compensation and guaranteeing of non-repetition currently missing in our reparations process [in Chicago]. I researched studies that talk about the positive impact of guaranteed income in targeted communities.”

The Chicago Future Fund provides $500 a month to 30 formerly incarcerated people residing in the neighborhood for a year and six months. No work requirements or restrictions on purchases are instated. The disbursement began in November 2021, and will end in May 2023. EAT plans to provide research and feedback in mid-2024 about the financial compensation program.

“There is a great and terrible myth that when people receive free cash, they won’t get a job because of a guaranteed cash flow. But this also misses the point! People can use $500 to address their immediate needs: baby diapers, veggies on the kitchen table, internet and water bills. Now, people can go out and apply for full-time employment without the burden of the debt they previously had just to survive.”

When asked about the guarantee of non-repetition, Wallace remains critical of police over-surveillance. “We saw in 2020 that cannabis arrests still happen all the time, taking away precious time for when people could be late for work, about to pick up their kids from school, right? It disrupts everyday life. It could endanger someone’s eligibility for employment. It could get someone fired. A guarantee of non-repetition is exactly what seeks to fight this disruption: crisis removal. What is the point of acknowledging the harm done by the War on Drugs if Illinois doesn’t solve this disruption?”

Expungement: A first step

An extreme case of disproportionate violence against Illinois residents of color, Homan Square nevertheless points to the large numbers of people who faced the carceral system for drug charges. In an effort to clean criminal records, Governor J.B. Pritzker expunged over 500,000 marijuana non-felony minor arrest records in January 2021, a move made four years ahead of the promised deadline in the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, the law that effectively legalized marijuana in the State of Illinois.

At the forefront of marijuana legalization on the House floor, State Representative Kelly Cassidy (D-14) sees the record expungements as a small but important step toward finding justice for those who remain incarcerated as the cannabis industry booms in Illinois. In early 2021, State Representative Mary Flowers also introduced a bill that would automatically expunge all criminal records for people convicted for the possession or delivery of cannabis.

Cassidy tells The Gate, “The tactics used by the War on Drugs have destroyed communities. Chicago especially felt that. We need to ensure that folks of underrepresented backgrounds truly have access to working in the [cannabis] industry. We’re talking businessmen making millions from dispensaries with literal metric tons of this product that we have historically taken lives over. Expungement is the start of this stuff, and going deeper in this process is critical.”

Rep. Cassidy also acknowledges that the current work, while progressive, is certainly not enough. Around 600,000 people eligible for automatic expungement could still wait another four years to see their records wiped clean. The state-funded initiative New Leaf Illinois consists of 20 nonprofit organizations that provide legal aid for people who are still in line to clear their cannabis records. Whereas minor offenses are automatically cleared, a pardon from Pritzker or a filed motion in court is needed otherwise. Anyone, whether it be a person with questions about recreational consumption to legal questions about future employment, can come to New Leaf Illinois for aid. 

“The reparations progress goes beyond cannabis,” Rep. Cassidy says. “If you go back to the original bill for [Illinois’s cannabis] legalization, there is zero mention of race. Not a single mention of race on that bill. That’s where our fight for social equity comes in. I believe moving forward, after the cannabis licenses, we need to see drug possession through a public health approach, not through the criminalization of certain people. We do need to decriminalize low level possession of any drug. We get folks access to treatment and courts. We get folks access to addiction evaluation. New Leaf [Illinois] is a step toward changing that framework from crime to public health.”

For Garien Gatewood, Director of Illinois Justice Project (ILJP), the problem is a catch-and-release arrest justice system. Though the state government is working to streamline the expungement process, minor drug offenses continue to land people in jail for weeks before a quick dismissal in preliminary court hearings. Often, these cases involve less than one gram of marijuana, cocaine, or heroin.

“[The ILJP] had a lot of conversations with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC),” Gatewood tells The Gate. “It’s traumatizing to spend a night in a cell. Even just one night can cost someone access to the economy they once had.”

In particular, Gatewood places hopes in the Restore, Reinvest, Renew (R3) program, a state-funded service that receives 25 percent of marijuana excise taxes after expungement and administration fees are covered. The resulting funds, which come from recreational cannabis sales (which topped $1 billion in 2021), are funneled to local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations dedicated to serving communities harmed by violence, mass incarceration, and economic inequity. 

“The ILJP partnered with the Safer Foundation to provide housing for people in Cook County. At no cost, people from high-risk areas can have a home, phone, whatever is needed. Similar to that, the City of Chicago is using R3 to partner with local organizations and get more committed to re-entry for incarcerated people. Is the system perfect? Absolutely not. We need to re-evaluate more what it means to get folks out of waiting and give them support. But it’s a start.” 

Cannabis licenses stall 

In addition to freeing the incarcerated and healing communities historically wrecked by violence, politicians and organizers have also worked to allow underrepresented groups to enter the cannabis industry. While a Black-owned dispensary still does not officially exist in Chicago, the cannabis license lotteries of the summer of 2021 hoped to amend the gap. 

However, the lottery has generated its own controversies. Former state Senator Ricky Hendon’s company, Westside Visionaries LLC, won a license, but immediately planned to sell his license to multi-state pot firms and investment companies. Loretta and Priscilla Foster partnered with cannabis company Dispensary 33 to plan the opening of a dispensary in Wicker Park, until the  small company—in fact, Chicago’s only indie dispensary shop—was bought by Florida-based corporation Ayr Wellness for $55 million. To complicate matters, the distribution of the conditional licenses were put on hold for every lottery winner in September 2021 after applicants from earlier lotteries complained that a clerical error had eliminated them from consideration.

Perspectives on the way forward

With the license process on pause, organizers and community leaders have turned their attention elsewhere. For Reverend Al Sharp, the founder of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, the priority is to help people already affected by the criminalization of cannabis or at risk of facing criminal charges. His present focus is on de-felonization, which would shift the response to drug offenses from criminal to civil charges. Sharp also hopes that the legal system moves to protect, not surveil and dehumanize, families impacted by the War on Drugs. 

“Decriminalization means that [a person] will not be exposed to the criminal justice system in response to drug use,” he explains to The Gate. “Maybe that person will still face a fine, but they will not face adjudication. Legalization, there is no penalty, but there’s still regulations over consumption to manage how much is being sold and used.”

“De-felonization is one step short of decriminalization. Right now, the felony is like a social death sentence. You legally are not going to be able to get public support housing. You’re going to jail. You won’t land a job. But decriminalization will see a shift from criminal sanction to civil sanction. A civil sanction is like a parking ticket. We don’t have to see felonization. Decriminalization will be… the death [of] felonization, and it will tell the government that you don’t arrest people. You help them.”

He recalls success abroad and in other states, in which alternate experiments to harsh prohibition and punishment have been effective. 

“Take Portugal. They decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and the cops relay non-traffickers to lawyers, doctors, and social workers. Crime didn’t go up, arrests went down. Overdoses decreased significantly. This model works, and I think we should adopt it. Vancouver also has safe consumption sites. They’re in Europe, Australia, too. Oregon also decriminalized all drug possession this year, and I believe that’s what the other states should follow. I don’t encourage the use of hard drugs, but that doesn’t mean those people deserve to die when there are safer, kinder ways to help them.”

Hardiman and Gatewood continuously emphasize the need to create safe spaces for children directly impacted by mass incarceration and illegal drug trades. 

Hardiman finds a solution through what he labels Black unity. “There’s a need to organize Black people like never before. The police have not been trained to stop violence. They get involved once someone ‘crosses a line.’ But even then, we see that the hundreds of homicides in 2021 often result in the deaths of young Black men. When I say Black unity, I’m talking about enlisting the support of family members, of neighbors, to protect the youth from violence, to keep them away from it, before they turn to it. If one kid can have the backbone of brothers and sisters, nobody goes to church funerals, nobody goes to the cemetery.”

Gatewood stresses that Illinois’s current system over-relies on the measurement of recidivism, staunching the progress of prevention and re-entry for at-risk youth and their families. “When people measure reentry solely on recidivism, it's nonsense. The Illinois Justice Project has worked with the Department of Juvenile Justice to help high-risk youth. In conjunction with the healthcare system, we're working with a lot of stakeholders around the county on a deferred prosecution pilot for high-risk youth. We're working in conjunction with the Cook County State Attorney's Office and Cook County Public Defender's Office and the Juvenile Justice Collaborative… to focus on the needs of these kids. We want to challenge folks to think outside of the box and sit down and see what their needs are, as opposed to punishing people for addiction. Illinois’s work [on cannabis legalization] might have been monumental, but we still have a long way to go.”

The shift in framework realistically will not take place overnight in Chicago, much less the United States. Yet, the impossibility of instant attainability need not discourage those who seek institutional and cultural change away from the stigmatization of substance use toward effective rehabilitation and recovery.

“Toss our reentry framework that only looks at a tendency to reoffend,” Gatewood urges. “Then, and solely then, can Illinois go forward and push for true equity.”

The image used in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons CCO license and can be found on Pix4free.

Alina Kim


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