Community organizer challenges Lightfoot’s promise that Chicago cannabis industry won’t be an ‘all-white enterprise’

Photo at top: The line to get into the fair started well before 10 a.m. (LaTesha Harris/MEDILL)

By LaTesha Harris
Medill Reports

At Chicago’s first-ever cannabis resource fair earlier this month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot was confronted about her promise that the emerging industry would provide equal opportunities to people of color.

Lightfoot walked among hundreds of attendees shortly after the fair’s keynote interview. The mayor’s path was blocked by 23-year-old Alex Boutros, who pushed through Lightfoot’s security detail immediately after spotting her in the bustling crowd.

The DePaul University graduate introduced herself and got straight to the point: Would the mayor listen to a new initiative from the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition?

Lightfoot’s team cut the conversation short. Boutros was directed to set up a meeting with a staff member, and the mayor was shuffled along.

“It seems like [Lightfoot] doesn’t feel too excited,” Boutros said afterward, adding that she was barely able to dive into details of the coalition’s new initiative about Chicago’s 31 plus-one dispensaries.

While Chicago hasn’t awarded new dispensary licenses yet, the city granted one recreational license each to the companies that previously operated medical-use cannabis dispensaries. These are known as a “plus-ones.” Because these dispensaries were all white-owned, people of color were excluded from the initial sales of adult-use cannabis.

The Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition is a grassroots organization that wants to combat this exclusion. Executive members and volunteers of the coalition attended the resource fair to raise awareness about Chicago’s lapses in racial equity.

The coalition pushes for zoning delays, such as not allowing companies to open their plus-one dispensaries, until proprietors sign its community benefits agreement.

If signed, the plus-one dispensaries would be required to hire people from disproportionately impacted areas and donate to organizations that aid in reducing harm caused by the war on drugs.

Before the city awards these dispensaries their adult-use license, they are required to attend a meeting in the area of their future shop and listen to community feedback.

According to their Facebook page, members of the coalition have attended every single community meeting to push the community benefits agreement.

Earlier in the day, Lightfoot said she wanted Chicago’s cannabis market to be known as “best in the world” in years to come.

“We are going to be listening, tirelessly working night and day to make sure that we build an industry and a marketplace that is reflective of the greatness of the city,” Lightfoot said Saturday morning at the Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum, at University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus. “This is not going to be an all-white enterprise as long as we focus and make sure we create opportunities for everybody to participate.”

Boutros, however, criticized the city of Chicago for not understanding true equity.

“Equity is looking at who was most affected by the war on drugs — that’s Black and brown people — and looking at ownership — that’s all white people — and then fixing it,” she said.

With 65 cannabis-related organizations and businesses present, the free resource fair became a career expo, networking opportunity and large-scale informational workshop.

Although most attendees of color were dismayed by the obstacles in ownership, they found solace in other opportunities the industry had to offer.

Pat Mitchell, a black self-identifying baby boomer, said she didn’t realize how lucrative her graphic design skills would be in the emerging cannabis industry until she drove 25 miles from Olympia Fields to attend the fair.

“I’m thinking of my African American friend who owned property on the West Side and wanted to get into cannabis back when the idea first sprouted in 2013, 2014,” Mitchell said, explaining why she wanted to change the industry’s lack of diversity. “She couldn’t get in and died in 2017. In remembering her — and the fact that she told me how hard she tried and still couldn’t break in — getting involved in cannabis would be a plus for me.”

Photo at top: The line to get into the fair started well before 10 a.m. (LaTesha Harris/MEDILL)