June 26, 2020 10:15 am ETEstimated Read Time: 3 Minutes
Amid the nationwide unrest and the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, many in positions of power are examining systemic issues that have led to the oppression of Black people and harmed Black communities over the years. One such issue is the War on Drugs. Officially instituted in 1971 by President Nixon, the War on Drugs was sold to Americans as having the goal of eliminating drug abuse in the United States. However, the policies of the War on Drugs have overwhelmingly impacted Black communities while overlooking white offenders. Now, Governor JB Pritzker of Illinois is taking a hard look at the damage that has been done by these policies and making an effort to alleviate that damage.
Racism Inherent in the War on Drugs
An analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union conducted earlier this year calls to light some of the more alarming problems with the way drug policies have been upheld over the years. According to the study, although Black and white people use cannabis at roughly the same rates, Black people are 3.64 times more likely to face arrest for possession, nationwide. On a state by state level, Black people are more likely than white people to be arrested for possession everywhere. And in some states, that likelihood is as much as ten times higher.
We know, additionally, that drug laws are racially unbalanced in nature. For example, crack cocaine, more common among Black communities, carries much higher penalties than powder cocaine, more common among white communities.
But with cannabis now being legalized in many states—Illinois among them—the time has never been better to look at the damage these policies have done to Black cannabis users and to try to make amends.
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Illinois’ Past Efforts
This isn’t the first time the state of Illinois has sought to undo the damage of the War on Drugs. Governor Pritzker, who has spoken openly about his support for legalization as Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis, introduced a program of “reparative justice” that would allow those with non-violent cannabis convictions the opportunity to have those convictions expunged. Although the damage that an unnecessary arrest does to someone’s life can never be undone, removing the conviction from their criminal record is certainly a helpful step.
Illinois has made other strides as well. The state government is actively encouraging minority participation in the cannabis industry, recognizing that there is potential for this burgeoning field to be dominated by white people and that that would be problematic after the War on Drugs inflicted so much damage on Black communities.
The R3 Program
On June 2nd, Illinois opened applications for its Restore, Reinvest, and Renew program. This program intends to distribute $31.5 million to communities most impacted by the War on Drugs. Grants may be given to non-profits, faith-based organizations, or municipalities within the affected zones. The funds are meant to be used to assist with such issues as legal aid, violence prevention, reentry from the criminal justice system, and youth and economic development.
Pritzker and other Illinois officials are hopeful that this program will help to close the opportunity gaps for communities that have been hit hard by gun violence, unemployment, and over-policing.
The state of Illinois continues to be a standard bearer when it comes to the implementation of new cannabis policies. It will be exciting to see what Pritzker and his associates come up with in the future, and what other states are inspired to do based on Illinois’ powerful example.
Kat Helgeson comes from a ten year career in social media marketing and content creation. She takes pride in her ability to communicate the culture and values of an organization via the written word. Kat is also the author of numerous books for young adults. Her titles have received the Junior Library Guild Award, the Bank Street College of Education Best Books of the Year Distinction, and been featured on the Illinois Reads selection list. Her work has been translated into Dutch and German.
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