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Imagine someone stole your wallet. Rather than returning what they took, imagine if the perpetrator offered you a program to deal with the trauma of living without it.

This is precisely the type of remedy available to survivors of the War on Drugs. Many legislators acknowledge the devastating impact of years of racist policies and police action, but they stop short of providing reparations for what Black communities in particular lost. Instead, what they offer is programming for survivors to deal with their trauma.

Richard Nixon termed drugs “enemy number one” in 1971, and governments shifted billions of dollars toward policies that punished those who suffered with addiction. Years later, Black communities have yet to recover from the jobs, housing, education and family members lost under those backward policies.

In the fight to legalize marijuana, Illinois policymakers condemned the harm the War on Drugs caused. They called out the racist policies of over-policing and mass incarceration, and investment in private prisons that disproportionately impacted Black communities. At the bill signing for the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act in June 2019, State Representative Jehan Gordon Booth made bold promises about the next steps for our communities, stating:

"What we are doing here is about reparations. After 40 years of treating entire communities like criminals, here comes this multibillion-dollar industry, and guess what? Black and brown people have been put at the very center of this policy in a way that no other state has ever done."

Many advocates like myself believed that through cannabis legalization, policymakers would guarantee survivors of the War on Drugs some semblance of reparations. The numbers tell a different story.

Drugs, specifically cannabis, are now big business. In 2020, the State of Illinois reported $582 million from cannabis tax revenue. To this day, there isn't a single Black-owned cannabis dispensary in Illinois.

Also in 2020, African Americans in Chicago were still three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than all other ethnicities combined. Out of the 2,991 cannabis arrests, 75% of those detained were Black, even though Black people only make up 30% of Chicago’s population.

Lawmakers wrote the legislation itself, the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, with equity in mind. At its foundation is the Restore, Reinvest and Renew Program, or R3, which legislators intended to drive 25% of cannabis tax revenue to fund services in areas hit hardest by the War on Drugs. The R3 Fund provides grants for violence prevention, reentry, youth development, economic development and civil legal aid services. Some of those programs receiving R3 dollars help survivors deal with trauma — but none of them compensate the survivors left in the wake of the War on Drugs.

Illinois has one of the highest Black unemployment rates in the nation, married to one of the highest racial wealth gaps in the country. And survivors from the War on Drugs, most specifically residents returning from incarceration, face higher barriers to obtaining gainful employment, student loans or housing and other forms of participation in civic life.

So, how can we address these issues? We invest directly in those who were most impacted.

Illinois can take action right now to provide impacted residents with reparations in the form of targeted guaranteed income — regular, direct cash, right into the hands of people who need it the most, without strings attached. Through a targeted guaranteed income program, Illinois could distribute R3 dollars directly to survivors of the War on Drugs in monthly payments.

The idea may sound too good to be true, but in fact, it’s already been done — and it works. In Stockton, California, a recent guaranteed income study found that an additional $500 per month removed material barriers to full-time employment for recipients, and gave them the capacity to set goals once they were able to cover basic needs like food and utilities. Recipients of the $500 experienced less income volatility than those who did not receive it, permitting households to stabilize and plan for the future. And participants in the study reported decreases in anxiety, depression and extreme financial strain, which increased their capacity to cope with unexpected income shocks. A targeted guaranteed income could do all this and more to address the harm produced by the War on Drugs.

I challenge Illinois’ legislature to stop gaslighting us. If cannabis legalization is “about reparations,” then it’s time for Illinois to invest. From top to bottom, we have to stop paying lip service to reparations and fully acknowledge the gross violation of human rights that occurred during the War on Drugs. Restore those survivors, compensate those survivors, rehabilitate those survivors and guarantee the harm won't reoccur by reviewing and reforming the laws that created the crisis in the first place. Illinois must seize the opportunity to create a targeted guaranteed income program that is proven to remove barriers to full-time employment, stabilize households and increase mental wellness.

Something has to give, and cannabis tax revenue can be that "something."


Richard Wallace is the Founder and Director of Equity and Transformation, an organization founded by and for formerly incarcerated and marginalized Black people in Chicago. Equity and Transformation (EAT) strives to uplift the faces, voices, and power of individuals that operate within the informal economy.