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The rush to profit from legal marijuana is leaving black neighborhoods in the dust

In Illinois, the campaign to legalize marijuana marched in on a platform of social justice, drowning out the concerns of black community leaders and pleas from the NAACP. Today, the same corporate entities and advocacy groups close the doors to prosperity as they build barriers to entry for minority business owners in a marijuana industry that’s worth billions.

Feigned empathy by addiction profiteers was nothing but a ruse to buy votes for legalization. But now people of all colors are pushing back on the will of the few. It began in earnest this month when black leaders in Chicago stood up to big marijuana and said, “Enough!” The City Council’s Black Caucus, led by Ald. Jason Ervin threatened to delay Chicago’s legalization process until business opportunities opened up to more people of color. Among the city’s 11 existing dispensaries, minority representation is a dismal zero percent.

America’s rushed and haphazard experiment incorporate marijuana has left behind economic opportunities for minorities. It’s no wonder people are angry. Advocacy groups NORML and Drug Policy Alliance have upped the ante on community and economic upheaval with failed promises of social equity. Almost two years after California’s market first opened, the illicit trade is more prosperous than its official equity programs, while Massachusetts companies have failed to follow through on promises of diversity.

Corporate marijuana is another for-profit addiction industry concentrated in poor, minority communities. In Denver, Los Angeles, and Oregon, pot shops are disproportionately located in disadvantaged areas. It’s a striking message of exclusion that demonstrates a willingness to take money from black and brown people and to redistribute harm.

Advocates point to lower rates of arrests as a measure of success, but they neglect the incarceration burden minorities bear in post-legalization states like Colorado and California. They talk of economic opportunity even as regulators fail to rein in the burgeoning illicit trade. In the same sweeping breath, marijuana supporters blame the ongoing pot vaping crisis — responsible for more than 1,600 cases of severe respiratory illness and several dozen deaths from both legal and illegal products — on the illicit market without mention of how legal marijuana can fuel the underground trade.

Today’s highly potent strains of marijuana, including concentrates with up to 80% pure THC, are a new breed of drug that delivers net harm to these neighborhoods. Well-to-do white folks created a marijuana utopia for themselves. Just don’t look behind the curtain.

Ald. Ervin’s stand against the greed of the canna-executive class is becoming a chorus of its own. Black leaders have become wary of the industry’s broken promises. Last month, for example, Maryland’s Black Caucus requested a pause on marijuana licenses, citing concerns over a lack of minority ownership. Earlier this year, politicians in New York and New Jersey were part of a broader effort to halt legalization. They knew that the industry would railroad black communities in favor of profits.

We should applaud these lone voices for having the moral courage to stand up to the false prophets of the so-called green rush. For too long, marijuana proponents propped up people of color then tossed them aside without thought to the personal, economic and communal costs they would bear.

Marijuana’s failed promises of social equity threaten to halt years of progress made in combating the drug war’s harms. But a smarter approach to marijuana that seeks to decriminalize rather than corporatize can achieve what advocates and industry insiders have failed to for so long. We can reform our nation’s drug policy with everyone in mind.

As for Chicago, the fight against the white men in suits turns to the local level. It is up to local leaders such as Ald. Ervin to shut the door on this addiction-for-profit industry.

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