Tyrone Muhammed starts with a question that haunts the legal cannabis industry.
“What smart, intelligent person will pay thirty percent more for some weed that months ago, they were buying from the ‘hood for thirty to forty percent less?”
It’s his lead question when he and others from Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change (ECCSC) visit North Side Chicago and suburban Illinois dispensaries with the goal of convincing customers to not buy cannabis from a local dispensary, but instead from underground market dealers, “your local weed man”, Muhammed calls them.
He argues that Illinois’ cannabis licensing laws, once lauded as atonement for racial discrimination and the War on Drugs, have actually made matters worse, and pulled money that would normally flow into minority communities through the illegal drug trade, and instead put it into the coffers of white-owned cannabis companies. A September 2020 Illinois state report, kept under wraps but leaked in February 2021, shows that less than two percent of IIllinois dispensary owners were Black or Latino.
“You only came to the neighborhood because of the cannabis, but now you have a dispensary near you. You now have your own personal dope house: in the mall, on the corners. Now you don’t have to deal with these disenfranchised communities when you got your cannabis,” said Muhammed.
“The bottomline is we’re just trying to bring attention to the fact that there’s no social equity to the cannabis industry in Illinois,” said Tio Hardiman, a social activist who has joined ECCSC’s protests. “One billion dollars earned in [Illinois in] 2020, but no Black-owned businesses. We’re still behind the eight ball. The first billion dollars has been made already.”
This spring ECCSC activists, most of whom are people of color, have visited half a dozen dispensaries, engaging with customers, most of whom are white, and challenging them to stop buying “corporate weed”.
It’s a concept that has gained some currency in Illinois recently, as State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) passed a bill out of a House committee that would fully legalize the delivery and possession of any amount of cannabis.
Hardiman, arguing that most entrepreneurs of color are unlikely to raise the millions of dollars needed to open a dispensary, suggests Illinois should create a “peddlers license” for pot sales to make the industry more accessible to average citizens, as it was when it was merely an illicit trade.
“Since they can’t open a dispensary, let them have a peddler’s license to sell at festivals, concerts, even a cart in the neighborhood,” said Hardiman. “Let them be included, because they don’t have the capital.”
At a recent action near Chicago’s Wrigley Field, at a Sunnyside Dispensary, Muhammed and Hardiman convinced a few people waiting in line to leave the dispensary. Social media videos of the event are tagged “#supportyourlocalweedman”.
“That’s my agitation,” says Muhammed. “We have to do guerilla marketing. Before this crap was going on, white folks supported the local weed man. Now, to buy from dispensaries, is a form of racism.”