A new state program is intended to fight what it terms “targeted injustice” created by the criminalization of marijuana with investment in local marijuana businesses.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity recently introduced the Social Equity Cannabis Business Development Fund Loan, created in order to uplift communities that have been historically and disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.

Criminal justice professor Tricia Oberweis said this loan is important when given the context of injustices faced by people of color due to marijuana criminalization.

“The reason it’s so important is because, since 1937 when we first criminalized pot, it always had a strong racial overtone,” Oberweis said. “In 1937, the ethnicity of target was mostly Mexicans, but also the initial director of the drug police force had a particular issue with jazz-loving black men. His approach to drug control was always overtly, plainly, clearly racist in nature.”

Although the demographics of marijuana smokers have changed drastically since 1937, the targeted racial prejudice in the criminal justice system has seemingly not.

Despite the fact that smoking rates are approximately equal among races, with 17% of black people, 14% of white people and 13% of Latinos ages 18 and older reporting to have used marijuana in the past year, arrest rates are significantly higher for people of color, according to a national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

According to a recent study reported by the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are 7.56 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related offenses in Illinois.

“Right now, in Illinois, we have some 40,000 people that are in prisons. There’s another 25,000-30,000 that are in jails, and 80% of federal prisoners and 60% of Illinois prisoners who are there for drug possession are people of color,” Oberweis said. “You can see, it doesn’t line up. The proportion of people who are drug users broken down by race doesn’t match up with the incarcerated people who are there for drug possession broken down by race. We have disproportionately impacted people of color.”

Among the students who believe the loan will have a positive impact on people of color is junior graphic design major Praither Williams, of East Saint Louis, Illinois.

“I think it’s a good way for people to right the wrongs of what’s happened with a lot of prejudice,” Williams said. “Weed is such a small-time drug, and it’s been a way for people to lock up people of color, blacks and Mexicans alike. It’s a way for them to populate jails. This is one way to go about fixing it.”

Junior nursing major Venice Guevarra, of Skokie, Illinois, emphasizes the importance of helping incarcerated individuals regain their footing in society. 

“I think the loan equity program is a great idea, especially since people of color that are men have been disproportionately targeted,” Guevarra said. “This will definitely help them, because they’ve been robbed over something that isn’t serious compared to other charges. It will help them reenter society.”

However, the effects of incarceration can extend beyond difficulty returning to society and the workforce.

“The ramifications of incarceration are so much more than that,” Oberweis said. “We’ve torn families apart. We’ve left mothers without an income from their breadwinner who’s been incarcerated. White families are disproportionately able, not that they necessarily do, to have two breadwinners in a family and boost their wealth, pay for things like homes in good school districts, private schooling, college education. They are able to accumulate wealth or socioeconomic status in a way that families of color have not been, in part due to connections to the drug war.”

Regardless, the loan program is a step in the right direction in many people’s eyes. Applicants will receive technical assistance and support, pay reduced license and application fees and access to low-interest loans for their marijuana business startup.

In order to receive the loan, 51% of the owners must have lived in an area disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs in five of the past 10 years, have been arrested, convicted or adjudicated delinquent on a cannabis-related offense and are eligible for expungement or have a parent, child or spouse similarly affected by a cannabis-related offense. If 51% of the owners do not meet these criteria, the business may also be eligible if it has more than 10 full-time employees and at least 51% of the employees meet the above criteria.

Oberweis believes the loan will provide the necessary support prospective business owners require to become successful.

“Obviously, you have to put in a substantial investment before hand, and then you have to wait around for 3 months, 6 months until your plants mature, and you have a crop that you can turn into capital,” Oberweis said. “So these loans are meant to help those people anticipated not to have access to capital into the business where they can then start generating tax revenue, generating wealth, generating profits for themselves, and by extension, bringing their communities up with them.”

For more information about the loan program, visit https://www2.illinois.gov/dceo/Pages/CannabisEquity.aspx. 

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