Sunday, June 2, 2019 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Featured image: Community members in support of a law legalizing recreational marijuana raise their hands to indicate their support during a May 25 town hall in Bellwood. | Courtesy Nathaniel George-Booker/Facebook
A week before lawmakers in Springfield voted to pass a bill that would make recreational marijuana legal in the state of Illinois, residents from across Proviso Township gathered in Bellwood to voice their opinions on what was then still pending legislation. The state legalized medical marijuana five years ago.
During the cannabis town hall, which was sponsored by the village of Bellwood and the Bellwood Chamber of Commerce, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th), 1st District Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Bellwood Mayor Andre Harvey sat on a panel and fielded questions and comments from residents.
Senate Bill 1438, which passed the Illinois House on a vote of 66-47 on May 31, gives residents of the state 21 and older the ability to “possess up to 30 grams, or roughly one ounce, of marijuana flower, five grams of THC concentrate and five grams of THC in a marijuana-infused product,” according to Capitol News Illinois. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who campaigned on legalization last year.
The bill also allows those who have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes involving less than 30 grams of the substance to get their records expunged through gubernatorial clemency. Those with criminal convictions involving more than 30 grams, but no greater than 500 grams, will have to petition a court to vacate their convictions.
Non-residents would be allowed to possess roughly half the marijuana, or THC concentrate, that residents of the state can possess. The bill also creates a $20 million low-interest loan program for qualified business owners in underserved communities.
During the May 25 meeting, held at Bellwood Village Hall, 3200 Washington Blvd. in Bellwood, many residents were concerned about the public safety implications of the legislation and that the economic windfall that the law might create for established players in the cannabis industry might not be shared equitably with blacks — the very people most negatively affected by punitive marijuana laws in the past.
Despite those concerns, most people in the room of at least 50 attendees raised their hands when Welch asked if they were in support of the legislation. Many people, however, said that the law’s implementation felt a bit rushed.
“We have to be diligent when we talk about what we can bring back to the black community,” said Broadview Mayor Katrina Thompson. “That’s why I’m here. We’re always, always behind the eight ball.”
Thompson said that she supports the legislation “wholeheartedly,” particularly considering the possibility that it may bring increased local revenue for the village, but that the legislative process “should be slowed down so we get all our ducks in a row.”
Debra Vines, a local autism advocate and founder of the nonprofit The Answer, Inc., said that she’s witnessed the health benefits of marijuana.
“I’ve spoken to families on the West Coast and Las Vegas, where it’s legal,” she said. “Their children are making milestones. I had a friend who had lockjaw and she uses TBC oil. Now, she can open her mouth, chew and eat.”
Welch said that, according to conservative estimates, legalizing recreational marijuana could bring in an additional $250 million a year to state coffers: 35 percent of additional funds would go to the state’s general fund, 25 percent to a fund that would pay for community reinvestment projects, 20 percent to a fund supporting mental health and substance abuse services at local hospitals, 10 percent to stabilize the budget and pay the state’s backlogged bills, 8 percent to fund grants that would train law enforcement personnel and 2 percent to a fund dedicated to public education and awareness.
Johnson echoed Thompson’s concern about the process, which he also said felt rushed, before citing California as an example. Johnson said that California realized much less revenue than it had projected before legalizing marijuana — mainly because big business monopolized the industry and shut out competition.
“If Big Business can run a monopoly in this industry, trust me they will,” Johnson said. “They want to control its growth, manufacturing, distribution and delivery.”
Johnson said that the state should ensure that the concerns of large businesses not outweigh the need to provide more jobs paying livable wages and capital for small businesses, particularly in black communities.
“My question is ownership,” said one woman. “What we see in our communities is that we don’t have ownership over anything,”
Last year, Vice reported that “while the legal weed business in the US is currently an $11 billion industry, less than a fifth of marijuana business owners identify as racial minorities, including the 4.3 percent who are black.”
Welch said that the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th) chairs, has made sure that minorities, and even those who have been previously convicted of marijuana-related crimes, are allowed opportunities to go into the cannabis business.
“Sen. Lightford has been in every room during these conversations,” he said, adding that the Black Caucus pushed for expungement and the low-interest loan program, among other issues, to the ire of Republicans.
“Minority communities have struggled for decades under laws that overly criminalized cannabis,” Lightford explained in a statement. “We made sure to include social justice aspects that work towards equity for our communities and start to make right the wrongs caused by the prohibition of cannabis.”
From a more local perspective, Harvey said that while the village could possibly benefit from the additional revenue resulting from marijuana legalization, he’s concerned what impact the new law might have on young men who have sold it illegally to support themselves and their families.
“I was a police officer before [becoming mayor],” Harvey said. “I knew a kid we called weed man. We raided his house five times and every time, he’d say, ‘Chief Harvey, I have nothing else to do. I have a felony and can’t get a job, so I’m going to continue to sell because this is how I support my family.’ He was 27 years old … When marijuana is legal, what is he going to do?”
Harvey said he’s afraid of young men like the one he referenced selling harder drugs in order to support themselves. To prevent that from happening, the mayor said, there have to be viable economic alternatives in place for them.
One pastor of a Bellwood church who said he’s lived in Maywood for 25 years channeled the concerns of many people in the room who fear the public safety consequences of legalizing recreational marijuana.
“Has there been a look at the potential guardrails put in place to help prevent youth under 21 from obtaining this, which would be a legal substance?” the pastor asked.
Welch said that opponents of the legislation alerted him to information indicating that states have already legalized recreational marijuana, such as Colorado, have experienced a significant increase in emergency room visits.
“That’s because you have it in so many different forms and people don’t realize when they get to the point of overdoing it,” Welch said. “Those are aspects we have to be concerned about. That’s why awareness and education is important.”
Welch and state Rep. Kathleen Willis (77th) voted in favor of the bill on May 31. Lightford voted in favor of the bill in the Senate on May 29. Once Gov. Pritzker signs the bill into law, legalization will go into effect in January 2020.
At the Bellwood town hall, Welch cautioned that just because marijuana would be legalized once the governor signs the bill into law doesn’t mean that it should be abused. He recommended people take a common sense approach to usage.
“You cannot drive impaired,” Welch said. “That will still be against the law. Do go to work high. Employers can still fire you.”
For Maywood native Dereck Campbell, who works in the criminal justice system, state lawmakers still need to rectify a historic wrong.
“Ownership is great,” Campbell said. “But it’s time to send our boys home. It’s time to send our black and brown boys home for crimes they shouldn’t have been incarcerated for in the first place.” VFP
Watch a video of the full meeting here (courtesy state Rep. Emanuel “Chris’ Welch).
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