Credit: Simone martin-newberry

If Illinois legalizes recreational cannabis, David Tello plans to come home. Until he decides whether to return to his wife and two children in Peoria, Illinois, in May, he’s staying in California, where he’s helping his brother relaunch their cannabis company in that state’s new recreational market. If recreational cannabis becomes legal here, Tello will launch MelloVibes, a cannabis dispensary, in Peoria. But for now, he’s legally blocked from the industry he knows best because of a previous conviction that he later got sealed.

Tello, who is first-generation Italian-
American, is one of countless cannabis-
connected felons in Illinois whose future prospects in the budding industry are unclear. As the state weighs recreational cannabis legalization—and eyes how other states have rolled out regulations—activists and citizens are wondering how Illinois will handle two pressing, overlapping concerns: how to engage felons with industry expertise like Tello and how to rectify the impact of cannabis criminalization on communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

City and state officials have made efforts to ease the penalties for cannabis possession and convictions, but it’s unclear how much of the resources generated by cannabis legalization will be allotted to communities that have been the hardest hit and whether recreational legalization will actually benefit them.

When Illinois opened its medicinal market, Tello didn’t apply to participate, because the program isn’t open to individuals with felony convictions. Tello has worked within the cannabis sector for years. In 2005, the Baltimore native moved to California with his brother and the two started their own medical cannabis farm. And once Colorado legalized recreational cannabis, his brother started another cannabis cultivation facility there in 2016, but Tello couldn’t be involved in the Colorado business due to a 2009 cannabis conviction in Illinois for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. He served 27 months before being sent to a work-release program in Peoria.

The time behind bars made him more patient, but it was hard to be away from his children, who are now in or headed to college.

“The worst, for me, in prison was not being able to hold my children. I love my kids, my wife. I just really missed my family more than anything,” Tello said. “I remember from a prison phone, my daughter being 12 or 13 asking me, ‘Daddy, is it okay if I have a boyfriend?’ That’s a very hard feeling to get over.”

He declined to name his former employer in the work-release program, but said he was in automotive sales alongside two other individuals with criminal records.

Massachusetts, and California cities like Long Beach and Oakland, have established cannabis social equity programs, which help individuals and communities impacted by cannabis criminalization get spots within business incubators, find jobs, and obtain licensing. It’s unclear whether Illinois will follow suit. When the state started its pilot medicinal cannabis program, regulators authorized cultivation centers and dispensaries to grow and sell medicinal cannabis for pain associated with conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and HIV and AIDS. But thanks to the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which conceals the contents of dispensary and cultivation center applications and renewals, it’s unclear just how many people who received licenses were members of underrepresented or marginalized communities, including women, people of color, veterans, or individuals with disabilities. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and Illinois Department of Agriculture denied Freedom of Information Act requests for access to that data, but that review is pending.

Between 2005 and 2017, the number of individuals in Illinois prisons for cannabis convictions peaked in 2011 at 849, but has since been on the decline, dropping to 372 in 2017, according to Illinois Department of Corrections statistics.

Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx announced in January that her office would begin expunging misdemeanor cannabis convictions. State Representative La Shawn Ford introduced the Criminal Identification bill, which would seal nonviolent criminal records including possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis after ten years. Other states have made an effort to expunge cannabis convictions, but it’s important for Illinois to automate or simplify that process as much as possible, said State Representative Kelly Cassidy (14th), who has been working with State Senator Heather Steans (7th) to craft recreational cannabis legislation. Cassidy said Illinois should also improve the entrepreneurship support and law enforcement components.

“I think what most folks fail to recognize when contemplating those issues of equity and access is that there’s not a singular problem that’s caused that lack of diversity,”
Cassidy said.

States have used different metrics such as school or arrest data to identify communities affected by cannabis criminalization. After talking with minority caucuses, and other stakeholders, Cassidy decided that the state needs to create a program for communities to decide how to use the resources generated by cannabis legalization.

As for diversifying entrepreneurship within the market, Cassidy acknowledged that—though the state has declined to disclose which diverse entrepreneurs were kept out of the sector—Illinois’s current medical market is overwhelmingly white and male, adding that dispensaries could be more inclusive in the hiring process. She also said the medical cannabis law’s language that prevents the state from giving out not only proprietary business information, but also disclosing basic ownership information about the companies licensed to operate, was a drafting error.

“It is critically important that we address the issue of equity and access and bring real competition into the industry and ensure that we do that in a way that improves the abysmal diversity record not just in terms of ownership but in hiring and contracting as well,” Cassidy said. “They can be doing better now, and they’re not.”

Activists, especially advocates of color, are eyeing the legislation to make sure the recreational legalization doesn’t repeat the same mistakes as the medicinal one. Echoing Cassidy’s hope for Illinois, Kiana Hughes, education director of Chicago NORML, a cannabis policy, education, and entrepreneurship advocacy group, said Illinois has a chance to legalize cannabis while implementing social equity measures.

The organization has put forth its proposals for social equity in cannabis, which include
expunging cannabis conviction records and providing resources for entrepreneurs, whether or not they want to enter the cannabis industry. For people of color whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, it is especially crucial that the state devote social equity resources specifically to them, because cannabis criminalization was partially responsible for trauma and family separations—a separate plight than other marginalized groups have faced, Hughes added.

“I think that the stuff provided for people of color and social equity should be separate. I don’t want us all to get lumped in with women and veterans and all that,” Hughes said. “Do what you need to do to make sure women get what they need and make sure that they’re paid the same, but don’t mash that up with what we’re asking for over here because we’re asking for it for a very specific reason.”

A February 2019 report from the consulting firm Freedman & Koski estimated that legalizing cannabis in Illinois could generate between $443 million and $676 million a year in sales tax revenue. But if the state were to legalize cannabis, the market would need to open up to more cultivators and dispensaries. A 2019 Marijuana Policy Group analysis reportedly found that the current market could fulfill the state’s demand for four years, but Cassidy said just because the current suppliers and dispensaries claimed they could meet the demand doesn’t mean that the market shouldn’t be opened to other entrepreneurs.

In its conversations with legislators, Chicago NORML has heard a willingness to pass a recreational cannabis bill, but there are still plenty of kinks to be worked out. Hughes called the measure “inevitable” but said the group wants to slow down the process to make sure the state perfects its social equity effort. Legislators still have some reservations, for example, about social consumption, which Hughes said stems from the “demonization of cannabis.” And there’s the question of how to determine when people are driving while high. Unlike with drunk driving, there’s no field test to immediately determine whether someone behind the wheel is impaired.

These law enforcement concerns are important, because there is mistrust within the Black community, Hughes said. Removing smell as a probable cause for arrest is critical for ensuring cannabis consumers don’t get arrested on questionable grounds, she said.

The fear in Black communities exists even in pro-cannabis circles. Hughes said that when she’s organizing Chicago NORML events, people fear being targeted by the police or being seen by outsiders as a cannabis supporter. Police officers’ views of cannabis won’t change simply with the passage of a new law, nor can you wait for law enforcement to change their minds before changing the law, said Sharone Mitchell Jr., deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project.

On the other side of the issue, some activists worry that cannabis will not be good for the Black community. Will Jones, communications and outreach associate of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a bipartisan marijuana policy organization, questions whether the resources generated from legalized cannabis in Illinois would actually benefit any communities of color.

Allowing entrepreneurs of color to enter the sector could be good in theory, but it takes significant capital to even enter the industry, and it’s not clear whether their earnings will “trickle down” to other people of color, Jones said. The organization is working to further decriminalize personal cannabis possession in Illinois, but it views the commercialization of cannabis as a way for companies to target disenfranchised communities, likening the budding sector to alcohol and tobacco companies, Jones said.

“If we want to show that we have the political will to really channel more resources to disenfranchised communities, let’s effectively decriminalize,” Jones said. “Take it out of the hands of law enforcement, so there aren’t people arrested and getting incarcerated from that. That will have huge savings for the state.”

Mitchell, a former trial attorney at the Cook County public defender’s office, said legalizing recreational cannabis could reduce the court’s number of misdemeanor cases but wouldn’t do much for decreasing the prison population, because the majority of people in prison are incarcerated for non-cannabis-related offenses. According to Illinois Department of Corrections statistics, the percentage of state prisoners with cannabis convictions has not risen above 2 percent between 2005 and 2017.

In a larger sense, societal attitudes toward cannabis have progressed a great deal since 2009, Tello said. A 2017 Southern Illinois University poll found that 74 percent of voters support decriminalization of cannabis where people in possession of small amounts for personal consumption would not be prosecuted but may be fined, compared to 21 percent who strongly oppose it.

“I never got mad at marijuana. I got mad at the system and the crazy irrational thinking of society,” he said, reflecting on his sentence.

When it comes to compensating individuals who were incarcerated for cannabis convictions, Mitchell thinks doing so would be
equitable, but a measure like that wouldn’t gain political support or be economically possible for the state to do.

Teresa Haley, president of the Illinois NAACP, also expressed skepticism over whether cannabis legalization would benefit Black communities, adding that she was concerned about children accessing it, as well as adult addiction. Even if the state were to expunge previous cannabis convictions, Illinois would need to ensure that those whose prior cannabis convictions were thrown out have the resources to reintegrate into the community, she said.

For communities slated to receive a cut of the cannabis tax revenue, Haley said that it’s up to lawmakers to commit to a percentage, whether it’s 20 or 25 percent or so. When asked whether she believes that lawmakers will actually allocate a significant portion of tax revenue from cannabis legalization to communities of color, Haley said, “Hell no.”

“I think we need to be at the table, but if you’re introducing . . . legislation that’s going to cause more harm than health to our communities, you need to have some programs in place and some dollars to back it up,” Haley said.

Even among Black entrepreneurs who wanted to enter Illinois’s medical cannabis market, the financial hurdles were too high, particularly in terms of buying land for cannabis cultivation in southern Illinois or enduring the
process of credit checks and background checks before opening a dispensary, Haley said. When asked if she knows any entrepreneurs of color who would talk to the Reader for this article, she said she knew of professional people who had tried to pool resources to enter the industry but who felt that talking about their efforts publicly would jeopardize their careers.

In response to critics who say that legalization would bring more cannabis into communities of color, Hughes said that the controlled substance already permeates Black and brown neighborhoods unregulated and is readily available for young people in the underground market.

“Most of the time what people don’t understand is when you get something from a dispensary or from a regulated cannabis business, it’s been tested. There’s labels of exactly what’s in it. You can look it up,” she said. “But with what’s out there on the street now, you’re really just taking someone else’s uninformed information that they’re just throwing out there.”

While legislators decide whether they will legalize cannabis in Illinois, entrepreneurs like Tello must wait to determine how they will operate in the state in the future. Tello said he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a businessman. His father, who died when Tello was four years old, owned commercial fishing boats in Boston. “I had this feeling growing up that I’ve always wanted to own my own business, and I’ve owned different businesses throughout my life, some successful, some failures,” he said.

As he awaits lawmakers’ decision, he said he hopes that the bill they pass will allow those with cannabis convictions to participate in the legal market as well as provide social equity programs that will even the playing field. Doing so would allow those who have some experience with the plant to get their shot at the legal market, rather than only ushering in wealthy people with little experience who will end up hiring consultants for advice.

“I’m not necessarily looking for easy. I’m just looking for the opportunity,” Tello said. “I work my ass off to get where I need to go. I don’t need easy. But I do need to know that I’m allowed in the program.”  v