The cannabis cultivation center would give people of color access to the most lucrative part of the business. Credit: A7nubis

For the last decade or so, I’ve been waging what you might call a two-front journalistic war on TIFs and reefer.

I’ve argued that one should be blown up and the other legal to smoke up.

Well, for a brief moment last week, these two fronts came together as Mayor Lori Lightfoot proposed creating the city’s first “cooperative cultivation center” funded with about $15 million from the tax increment financing program.

All right, finally a TIF expenditure even I can endorse!

OK, so I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking . . .

One, how can a program intended to eradicate blight in low-income communities be used to cultivate marijuana?

And two, how can we afford to pay for a cooperative cultivation center when we don’t even have enough money to reopen the mental health clinics in poor, high-crime areas that Mayor Rahm cruelly closed in 2011?

To answer the second question first—we’re not really broke. There’s always a million or two or three in the good old TIF banana stand.

As for the first question, the state’s TIF law is larded with so many loopholes that the mayor is free to spend TIF money on pretty much anything, anywhere.

That’s why, over the years, various mayors have gotten away with doing things like taking TIF money intended to build a hotel in the South Loop and using it to fix up Navy Pier, which, as I never tire of pointing out, is neither blighted nor a community.

Mayor Lightfoot announced her idea for a cultivation center as the reefer revolt heated up in the City Council.

That revolt—led by 28th Ward alderman Jason Ervin—erupted when it became apparent that none of the 11 dispensaries given the green light to sell marijuana on January 1 were owned by Black people.

This was painfully ironic as one of the most legitimate reasons for legalizing reefer was that the law against it was so unfairly enforced. People of every race smoked it. But basically, only Black people were busted for it—as Mick Dumke and I first chronicled back in 2011 when we wrote the Grass Gap.

To sum things up . . .

The funding from TIF, the economic development program intended to benefit low-income communities, was largely going to rich white ones. And the law against marijuana was mainly enforced on Black people.

So white people got the economic development money and Black people got busted. And you wonder why so many Black people have left Chicago over the last 20 years.

Anyway, it was especially difficult for Black aldermen who came to realize that the main beneficiaries of ending the war on marijuana were people who had suffered no consequences from that war at all. Namely, rich white people.

It would be as though the government created a program to aid Vietnam vets and gave all the money to Donald Trump, one of our country’s most prominent draft dodgers.

Ervin mustered up enough council votes to threaten to pass an ordinance that would have delayed opening the recreational marijuana dispensaries until July.

That got everyone’s attention, as city and state officials pointed out that they were depending on tax revenue from the sale of legal weed.

You know, it’s funny how these things work. For decades, when Black people were getting unfairly locked up for possessing weed, no one appeared to be in a hurry to do anything about it.

But as soon as some Black aldermen made a move that might have kept rich white people from being even richer? Man, all hell broke loose.

It was in the midst of the reefer revolt that Mayor Lightfoot trotted out her idea for the cultivation center.

“Lightfoot said up to $15 million generated by tax-increment financing could be used as seed money for the plan to open a ‘cooperative cultivation center’ that residents of color could ‘buy into’—either with a ‘modest cash investment’ or with ‘sweat equity,’” Sun-Times writers Fran Spielman and Tom Schuba reported.

“This is a very, very expensive business to get involved with,” Lightfoot said. “The basics to be a cultivator requires about a $13 million to $15 million investment. There are not a lot of people that have that, particularly in a market that a lot of banks and traditional lenders won’t touch.”

“I think the only way to really crack this nut is for the city to invest its own resources to get engaged, get diverse entrepreneurs involved in the most lucrative part of the business, which is cultivation,” Lightfoot added.

Sounded like a good idea to me—so long as they put the cultivation center in an actual poor or blighted community. As opposed to sticking it someplace like Lincoln Park or Lincoln Yards.

Which, considering how things go in Chicago, is probably where they’d stick it.

Eventually the reefer revolt fizzled as some aldermen who said they were going to vote for the delay backed off. The measure calling for a delay wound up being defeated by a vote of 29-19.

Nonetheless, I’m hoping Mayor Lightfoot doesn’t give up on her idea for a cooperative cultivation center, even if the pressure has passed.

It could actually have some residual benefits for the very low-income communities the program was intended to help, as opposed to watching more TIF funds go up in smoke.   v