The Chicago City Council voted 19-29 against delaying the effective date of allowing legal cannabis sales until mid-summer of next year — but not for lack of trying on West Side Ald. Jason Ervin’s part.

The aldermanic Black Caucus, which Ervin currently heads, has been pushing to delay after all of the applicants who got dispensary licenses turned out to be white-owned. The caucus argued that it defeats one of the major goals of marijuana legalization — to redress the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans for selling and possessing pot. On Dec. 17, the city council’s Committee on Contracting Oversight & Equity narrowly approved the delay, sending it for full City Council consideration the following morning.

The black aldermen were far from united on the matter. Fellow West Side Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) argued that the cost of delaying the sales outweighed the benefits, and that aldermen could pressure license holders to bring African-Americans into the business on the local level. He, along with Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Emma Mitts (37th), voted against delaying. But most of the black aldermen who spoke insisted they were determined to push for the delay because their communities waited for justice long enough and they couldn’t let the matter stand. And while they were ultimately outvoted, Ervin told Austin Weekly News they would continue to push for more opportunities for black entrepreneurs any way they can. 

As the aldermen prepared to debate the delay, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s floor leader, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) moved to defer and publish — which would have pushed back the debate until the next council meeting. But the motion was defeated, setting the stage for what proved to be a contentious debate full of multiple procedural maneuvers and arguments over city council rules.

South Side Ald. David Moore (17th) staked out a position most of his fellow Black Caucus members reiterated over the next two hours — they were elected to advocate on behalf of their community. He noted that black voters helped Gov. J.B. Pritzker win, so he — and state government in general — should listen.

“To any of my colleagues who feels the pressure, you need to know the power of your community,” Moore said. “If we’re going to cave to this, we don’t need a Black Caucus. And I’d be the first one to leave [it].”

Ervin put it in particularly stark terms.

“This conversation started with a simple question — why is it that the [black] communities are being left out of the recreational cannabis business?” he said. “This ordinance is trying to correct the wrong that’s been done by working with the city, working with state, working with cannabis owners.”

And the Black Caucus got some support from a few non-black aldermen. Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, whose ward includes Pilsen and a significant portion of Chinatown, said that, given the violence and disinvestment plaguing black and brown communities, “every opportunity we have needs to be an opportunity for social equity.”

Burnett started his statement by saying that the original recreational marijuana bill was passed with approval from the General Assembly’s black and Hispanic caucuses. And he reminded his colleagues that he previously stated he wouldn’t support any dispensaries that didn’t have black owners or partners. Since then, Burnett said, he spoke to representatives of two dispensaries, and they brought black partners on board.

“I feel like I’ve been successful,” he said. “I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Burnett said he’s been encouraged by discussions in Springfield about potentially allowing more dispensaries in Chicago — which, he said, would provide more opportunities for African-Americans.

Ultimately, Burnett argued, delaying implementation wasn’t a fight worth having.

“Do we want to lose?” he asked. “We want to figure this thing out? Are we responsible if we fight and lose? Or are we more responsible if we fight, we negotiate, we compromise? … I’m not trying to get anything. I’m fighting for my community. I’m trying to bring something home for our community.”

Ervin fired back, saying, ultimately it was about standing up for what’s right.

“To say that our caucus isn’t acting in a responsible manner is not correct,” he said. “They’re telling us it’s responsible for us to have the ability to correct an economic injustice. Not doing [anything] is irresponsible”

While Ald. Michael Scott (24th), Taliaferro and Mitts were all in attendance, but they didn’t comment on the issue one way or another. 

After some further back and forth, Ervin tried to move to defer and publish — but before he could make the motion, Lightfoot cut him off and moved to have a vote. This, in turn, led to back-and-forth arguments between the two officials as Ervin argued that she didn’t have a right to cut him off, or to have a vote on the delay before voting to end the debate. Lightfoot and several aldermen cited rules, until Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) found a rule proving Ervin correct.

The council proceeded to vote to end the debate — and vote down the extension. 

In an interview a day after the vote, Ervin said, “We’re going to continue to stay on it, to ensure that there are African Americans who have ownership opportunities.”

When asked whether there was anything he, as an alderman, could do to effect dispensary ownership on the local level, Ervin said he couldn’t because “the state has all the power.” But he said he’s interested in seeing where conversations go between the city and the state about cooperative ownership and other ways to expand black ownership. 

“The only tool we have is not to allow any more dispensaries, and we will consider it,” Ervin said. “But we want to see what the equity tools can bring.” 


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...