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Legal Weed As Reparations?

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Iris Gottlieb

The war on drugs is still alive and well, and the people most often caught in the crossfire are black and brown. Now that weed is legal in many states, most of the people making money off weed are white. With help from WBEZ’s Natalie Moore, we look at how legalization might benefit communities of color and repair harm caused by the war on drugs.



Ann Marie Awad: From Colorado Public Radio and PRX, this is On Something.

Angelo Leslie: First it just started out as a recreational thing, especially when I was younger, playing football, playing sports, and then just coming from my background, it was just a way for me to calm my nerves and that type of thing.

Ann Marie Awad: This is Angelo Leslie. He lives in Chicago.

Angelo Leslie: And then it grew from me smoking a lot to just figuring out, okay, if I'm wasting all this money buying this how can I somehow become not just a consumer but also a distributor as well. And it kind of went from there.

Ann Marie Awad: It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the modern war on drugs began or whether it truly began with President Nixon or President Reagan. But whenever it did, it was long before 25-year-old Angelo Leslie had ever been born.

Angelo Leslie: At this point,I'm in group homes and I'm going to school, I'm in the suburbs now I'm going to school and everybody has nice stuff, nice clothes and everybody's looking at me like, Oh like you know being made fun of. I didn't have like the shoes, I didn't have all that stuff that they had. So I'm like man, how can I make money? Cause we were getting an allowance but it was like $10 a week, every Friday. And I was just like, man, what am I going to do with this? That's how I was already thinking. And like 12 years old, what am I going to do with $10? So one of my friends, his brother was selling weed. So I was like, man, dude, we smoke a lot, so let's just see if we can sell it. And we tried it for a week. We made like 200 bucks.

Ann Marie Awad: The war on drugs, generations of policy choices that aggressively criminalized drug use would intersect with Angelo's life a handful of times. And it's not in Angelo's past either. In spite of a growing trend of legal weed in states, the war on drugs is still alive and well today and the people caught in the crossfires are most often black or brown. According to the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, nearly 80% of those in federal prison for drug crimes are black and brown. In state prisons it's about 60% and now that weed is legal in lots of places, most of the people making money off of it are white.

Angelo Leslie: So this is not indicative of like the person that I am.

Ann Marie Awad: Of course not. Yeah.

Angelo Leslie: But I just want to put that disclaimer out. Well I used to hustle cause how I grew up man, it was just like nobody did anything for me so nobody taught me how to go get a job or do any of that positive stuff. I guess you could say.

Ann Marie Awad: In states where weed legalization is under consideration, there's an increasing sense that just legalizing weed is not enough, that it matters how we do it. And more and more states like Illinois are trying to legalize in a way that benefits communities of color. The same communities that had lost a lot in the war on drugs. That means that the same thing that got Angelo arrested dealing pot could now be a viable career option for him post prison. It's the idea that weed should be legalized with an eye towards repairing what's been broken, forgiving past marijuana convictions and providing a leg up to people of color who want in on the legal weed business. That leg up could be a way to create wealth in black communities where families tend to earn one-tenth of the wealth of the average white family. That's why Angelo is calling his weed delivery service Green Dynasty. How did you come up with the name Green Dynasty?

Angelo Leslie: Cause I like dinero which is green and I'm trying … I'm trying to create a dynasty here. This is not just some stuff I'm just doing for like the next five to 10 years. This is, I'm trying to create something that's generational.

Ann Marie Awad: And Angelo feels like this shift towards social justice, when it comes to marijuana legalization, will be a way for black men like himself to create generational wealth.

Angelo Leslie: We'll want people to understand that this is just bigger than the cannabis industry. This goes on … this goes on the line of prison reform. This goes really deep for me. It's really deep and personal.

Ann Marie Awad: This is On Something, stories about life after legalization. I'm Ann Marie Awad. On this podcast we tell stories about people and weed specifically about people who can be left behind once weed becomes legal. And in order to tell this story, Natalie Moore is joining us for this episode. She's a reporter for WBEZ in Chicago and her beat is the South Side of the city, a predominantly black area in one of the nation's most segregated cities.

Natalie Moore: I felt like the news media covered the South Side, as well as the West Side, black neighborhoods, through a singular lens. And that is violence and there's an invisibility of working class and middle class black folks. I still think there's an invisibility at large in this country. And so I cover a lot of policy issues, but I also want to show the life and the joy of black Chicago as well, that it's not just, here's another terrible policy. That's keeping home values down or whatever that is.

Ann Marie Awad: Natalie has also written a book called The South Side, a portrait of Chicago and American segregation. She's also a columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and she introduced us to Angelo.

Angelo Leslie: Oh yeah. The West side of Chicago is where I'm from. It's pretty messed up over there.

Ann Marie Awad: What messed up about it?

Angelo Leslie: Just the stuff that goes on, obviously the crime rate, the shootings, gangs and all that type of stuff. It's just not a positive environment for you to grow in. Especially as a child.

Ann Marie Awad: Angelo Leslie was born straight into Chicago's foster care system.

Angelo Leslie: So I didn't even know that I had a family until I was like around 10 years old. Yeah.

Ann Marie Awad: Until well into his teens, he was moved from foster home to foster home later on living in group homes when he was in high school. Angelo remembers one particularly traumatic experience.

Angelo Leslie: I was in that home for six years and I thought that was my real mother up until like I was five and she was dark skin and I was light skinned and I didn't look nothing like her.

Ann Marie Awad: Angelo says when he asked her about it, she got physically abusive.

Angelo Leslie: Then I tried to tell my caseworker and you know I'm still a young child so they just thought I was just like crazy, crazy and nobody believed me. And that went on for years.

Ann Marie Awad: And by the way, the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services does have a record of investigating allegations like Angelo is describing around this time. Officially the investigation was unfounded but not all the records are available anymore because so much time has passed. So we don't know much more than that. Angelo says it was years before Child and Family Services finally intervened and placed him in a new home.

Angelo Leslie: I kept trying to tell people too, one day, it was two weeks before my birthday and cause my birthday's in January, so it was really cold here in Chicago in January as you know. And I somehow got out of the ties that she had me tied up with and I ran away and I didn't have any clothes on it cause she took all my clothes. All I had was a little towel I had found in the cellar and I ran to a church and I hid under the church van. And somehow I went to sleep in that morning. The church people, they thought I was a little baby because I wasn't growing or anything cause I wasn't like properly being nourished or stuff like that. And the police came. Chicago police came and they seen I was bigger than a baby but I was really small and I wouldn't come out cause I was scared. So they poked me with their night sticks til I came out and that's when they seen all the marks and the bruises and the cuts and they took me to the hospital and that's the only reason why I left the house.

Ann Marie Awad: I'm so sorry that that happened to you.

Angelo Leslie: Yeah, it is what it is. It was bad, but I feel like it's other kids that go through worse. Actually a lot of kids die.

Ann Marie Awad: Experiences like this had a real impact on Angelo's mental health when he was a kid.

Angelo Leslie: I was going through a lot emotionally and mentally. People didn't really understand what was going on with me and obviously I was labeled as a troubled kid or a problem child, anger issues. But really I was just confused. I didn't really understand why my life had ended up like that.

Ann Marie Awad: By the time he was in high school, he was starting to run into other types of health problems.

Angelo Leslie: They had me on like six different types of medications, right? And it got to be so bad, my liver was starting to shut down.

Ann Marie Awad: Angelo passed out in his high school's bathroom one afternoon and then he woke up in the hospital. After that he stopped taking all of his medications and just kept medicating with weed. He says even now it's the only medicine he uses.

Angelo Leslie: So like healthwise, dude, like it helps me sleep because like I suffered from PTSD and insomnia and stuff like that. So it helps me sleep even if there's only like three, four hours every day there's still more than what I was getting. Right? I have like major back issues that helps me with that. So this medically for me, it's just like so useful and I don't have to take pills. I don't have to take medication, that's what it is for me.

Ann Marie Awad: Angelo ended up getting arrested twice while he was a teenager, both times for possession with intent to sell. Then he racked up a felony for fraud that landed him in jail for three years. A sentence he just completed last year. And those criminal convictions became a real obstacle to finding housing or a job once he was out.

Angelo Leslie: I tried McDonald's, I tried Arby's. I tried at Walmart. I tried at Myer's. Well, Myers gave me a shot, but then once they hired me for a week, they did my background check. After they hired me, then they fired me.

Ann Marie Awad: So he tried another avenue -- medical marijuana, which was legal in Illinois starting in 2014 but no matter how many jobs he applied for at pot businesses, he couldn't even get in the door.

Angelo Leslie: I couldn't get interviewed. Even though, even though I'm as knowledgeable as anybody in this industry about the industry.

Natalie Moore: We know that people who are released from prison have a hard time finding jobs. They have a hard time finding housing. They have a hard time reintegrating into society.

Ann Marie Awad: This is Natalie from WBEZ again.

Natalie Moore: And so he had a job and it was going well and then his record came up and he wasn't able to keep that job anymore. Unemployment is already high for black men in the age range that Angelo is in and if you put a conviction on top of that, it's really hard to find work, especially in the city.

Ann Marie Awad: And so Angelo had another idea, start his own weed business.

Angelo Leslie: For me personally, owning my own business just eliminates people having to tell me no, like people stopping me from making my money. Like that's where that's why it's important for me personally.

Ann Marie Awad: And this new way of thinking around legalization in Illinois is the key to why he can do that. It's not just about making it legal to smoke weed. It's about helping the Angelos of the world get a foothold in a billion dollar industry.

J.B. Pritzker: Legalization of adult use cannabis brings an important and overdue change to our state and it's the right thing to do.

Ann Marie Awad: In June, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a law to legalize recreational marijuana. It goes into effect on January 1st, 2020. That makes Illinois the first state to legalize recreational weed through the Legislature as opposed to putting the questions directly to voters.

J.B. Pritzker: Criminalization offers nothing but pain, disruption, and injustice. In the past 50 years, the war on cannabis has destroyed families, filled prisons with nonviolent offenders and disproportionately disrupted black and brown communities.

Ann Marie Awad: The law contains an ambitious social equity provision. Its purpose is to make sure that communities that were targeted by the war on drugs get something more than just legal weed out of legalization. There are a few ways that this law tries to accomplish that goal. Natalie says, one of them would aim to help areas like the West side where Angelo is from.

Natalie Moore: It's a way to give some funds to disadvantaged communities, giving resources to community groups that were disproportionately impacted by violence, poverty, over policing, et cetera, related to cannabis related laws.

Ann Marie Awad: Then, there's a provision that deals specifically with the criminal justice system.

Natalie Moore: So there are a lot of elements to the social and criminal justice reform that's part of the marijuana legislation. So one, it seeks to undo the past harm by expunging your records.

Ann Marie Awad: There is a lot of relief in this law for people with marijuana convictions, but it's really complicated and it depends on the amount of weed that you were caught with. So Angelo was able to seal a misdemeanor possession charge, it's not the same thing as expungement, but it does make a big difference for him. It means that that conviction will no longer raise a red flag in a background check.

Natalie Moore: And I just read an article that says that they think 770,000 cases would qualify for this expungement. So that's the criminal justice part.

Ann Marie Awad: And finally there's a portion of the law that provides a leg up to people like Angelo who want to enter the legal cannabis industry.

Natalie Moore: So the new law establishes a social equity applicant and that's a person who was arrested or convicted of a minor cannabis offense or if you're related to someone who was, then there's a cannabis business development fund that's $30 million and that's paid for by licensed cannabis businesses that operate during this transition period and that fund is to help with job training, offset fees, give low interest loans and grants.

Ann Marie Awad: Those social equity applications are not open yet, but Angelo is trying to get his business up and running before January 1st when the new law takes effect. Then by the time that he's ready to apply, he'll already be established, although he'll also be competing with other applicants by then.

Natalie Moore: Someone like Angelo would definitely qualify as a social equity applicant, but he doesn't want to wait around for that application process to open next year. He says, let me start a business plan, let me get started now. And so he sees transportation as a foot in the door.

Ann Marie Awad: Transportation. That's right. Weed delivery. Now there are already huge companies offering weed delivery in other legal states like California. But Angelo says this law gives him a fair fighting chance against the competition.

Angelo Leslie: So this is why this equity part is so important because how else are you going to win, right? If they have the money to drown you out immediately. So yeah, it's going to greatly change at least the immediate 50 people that I know that are looking to get into this business, it's going to.. it's going to do a lot, at least give everybody a fair shot. And that's not to say that everybody is going to actually be successful. But that's not the point. The point is, is that at least you have a shot, at least you have a chance, right?

Ann Marie Awad: Right now, Green Dynasty, that's Angelo's business is based out of his apartment in the Hyde park neighborhood of Chicago, right near the University of Chicago campus. That's where he met Natalie.

Natalie Moore: And they look at Hyde Park as a college town because the university is there and the thought is, well I live here and also college students like to smoke marijuana. I'm in an ideal place and incidentally I'm also a Hyde Parker and turns out I live walking distance from Angelo.

Ann Marie Awad: Oh, you would be in his delivery range?

Natalie Moore: I would be .. if someone is that lazy? That's their idea that you're too lazy to go out and buy the marijuana.

Ann Marie Awad: So I'm their customer.

Natalie Moore: Yeah

Ann Marie Awad: It's a solid business idea, right? Delivering legal weed to lazy college students in the comfort of their own apartments? College students over 21 of course. Except even with the opportunities afforded by the social equity law, Angelo is still hitting obstacles in the search for investors. Investors who are willing to work with somebody who has a criminal record.

Angelo Leslie: So there will be grants given out, no interest loans, those types of things that will be given out. But for what we're trying to do, we still need major capitol.

Ann Marie Awad: After a quick break we'll hear more about Angelo's path forward and whether or not social equity is a promise that can be kept.

Ann Marie Awad: All right, so Illinois passed this law to legalize recreational weed and one of its goals is to legalize weed in a way that benefits black and brown communities. Illinois is not the first place where this idea has taken root. In fact, some people feel so strongly about it in states like New York and New Jersey that they're willing to wait on legalization until it's done in a way that is equitable, but that's easier in theory than practice. Massachusetts, for example, asks local governments to set aside some business licenses for people of color, but as that law has gone into effect, very few people have come forward to apply for those licenses. It turns out that criminalizing certain communities for decades makes it harder for those people to trust the government. Not to mention even the people who have applied are still on the hook for thousands of dollars in startup money. Illinois also has steep startup costs even for social equity applicants and that's not the only snag.

Matthew Brewer: This state has defined social equity applicants by people who've lived in a certain zip codes for certain periods of time, or people who have been impacted by the war on drugs either through being arrested or having family members who've been arrested for certain types of offenses, etc..

Ann Marie Awad: This is Matthew Brewer. He's a lawyer and he's a leading black entrepreneur in Chicago's medical marijuana market. His organization called SEED Illinois. That's an acronym for Social Equity and Economic Diversity tries to connect black and brown cannabis entrepreneurs with investors.

Matthew Brewer: But the elephant in the room for a lot of folks, people at SEED for example, is that black and brown people don't just by definition qualify as social equity applicants.

Ann Marie Awad: Meaning someone like Matthew who lives in a more affluent neighborhood in Chicago doesn't qualify.

Matthew Brewer: You pick the zip code and you can create proxies for race, but when you do that, you lose lots of people. I live in the West loop. I'm not a social equity applicant, by definition, though, I have family members who've been arrested and so depending on what the law means by family members, maybe I am, but there's no question that I directly and indirectly have been impacted by these types of laws.

Ann Marie Awad: Laws like this rely on this really vague term -- "people who have been affected by the war on drugs." Natalie Moore, our friend at WBEZ, says it gets really complicated trying to determine why certain people qualify and others don't.

Natalie Moore: Are you keeping someone like him and other black businessmen who have acumen who have access to capitol from joining in and he's not knocking that you shouldn't have guys like Angelo in, but guys like Angelo need money and they need to be able to partner with people.

Ann Marie Awad: Yeah, I mean that's such an interesting idea, right? Do you stop being affected by the war on drugs at some point? Like if you move to a different neighborhood?

Natalie Moore: I mean if he's driving in a fancy car, does that mean the police aren't going to stop him? Does that mean that he doesn't experience racism even though he has a JD and an MBA? No.

Ann Marie Awad: So where does this lead Angelo and his goal of starting Green Dynasty?

Angelo Leslie: I think what makes me nervous is the fact that I know that people are looking at me now. So I'd never really had that before. People are coming to me asking me, about my opinion and what I think and I've never had that because I've never been made to feel like my opinions were valid. Especially when I first started talking about cannabis, like weed in general, people just laughed. Like yeah, OK. Like nah, dude, like you realize how much money this is, do you realize like what this can do? Let's just forget the money. Just for me personally and my health, like literally if it wasn't for weed man, cause I was pretty messed up. Like … they messed me up. Like for real.

Ann Marie Awad: He sees so much potential in weed. Seriously. He kept telling us that he could see the potential even when he was a kid and that's why he started dealing in the first place. But that early introduction to weed ended up being an early introduction to the criminal justice system. Something that's left a lasting impression on him. Do you have a lot of other friends that are sort of in a same situation?

Angelo Leslie: Yeah.

Ann Marie Awad: Really?

Angelo Leslie: Yeah. Oh yeah.

Ann Marie Awad: What do you think that says about how the war on drugs is affected your community and the people around you?

Angelo Leslie: It kind of makes you feel like it was targeted a little bit.

Ann Marie Awad: Targeted how?

Angelo Leslie: Like just targeted for like my people and my culture because I don't really see that affected too many other cultures. I just don't, I really, I just don't see it.

Ann Marie Awad: If Angelo feels like the war on drugs targeted the black community, then it stands to reason that legalizing weed should also target the black community. Right? It might help if we reframed this whole movement when the law passed one Illinois lawmaker referred to it as reparations. Natalie says that idea is about the long game. So this idea that the law is reparations, it's about repairing a harm. Tell me what that, what kind of harm does this law aim to repair?

Natalie Moore: Yeah, so when you think about reparations, you think about an apology. You think about reform, you think about restoration of that harm and reparations doesn't mean that you have to cut a check to someone. So when someone says, a state lawmaker says, think about this as reparations. It's looking at how can we repair harm to the community. We can't allow a bunch of rich white people, rich corporations, to swoop in and make money off of communities. When you have people who were sent to prison for smoking or for selling marijuana.

Ann Marie Awad: Where do you think, where in Chicago do you think that this law could make the biggest impact?

Natalie Moore: I have thought about what is it going to look like in this city when marijuana is legal. Is there going to be a dispensary next to my job? Is there going to be one walking distance from where I live? I think the hope is that you get some business owners, you get some jobs. I don't personally think that the economic vitality of black segregated neighborhoods is going to hinge upon social equity and marijuana. I don't think it's going to clear vacant lots out, but maybe some storefronts won't be empty and then it creates a ripple effect. So I don't think it's about, okay, here's this one business that transformed this area. But if that marijuana business could be a catalyst for other businesses to come, that could be successful.

Ann Marie Awad: And Angelo is ready to be that catalyst. He hopes to launch Green Dynasty on November 1st and since recreational weed sales won't be online yet by then, Green Dynasty, will start out delivering tobacco products, rolling papers and CBD products until then. But while his past is behind him, Angelo says it's his life experience that will not only help him run a successful business, but also provide jobs to people who have faced the same challenges.

Angelo Leslie: You know, some people can say, Oh, I understand. No, you don't understand. You don't understand what this man had to go through. Why is it so hard for him to just get basic stuff that he needs to just live a basic life? You don't understand that. I can actually honestly say I understand that because I lived through it. I lived through the nightmares. I lived through the terrors and that's what makes me more inclined to speak on this because nobody else can speak from our perspective. I don't think cause I've seen both sides.

Ann Marie Awad: There's something really fascinating about examining this movement for social equity from where I'm sitting here in Colorado. When Colorado voted to legalize recreational weed in 2012 we just didn't think about it. That amendment contained no language dealing with people who had been harmed by the war on drugs. There was no leg up for people of color or no program to erase old pot convictions. And now years later, Colorado has hundreds of licensed pot dispensaries all over the state and only about two are owned by black people. Now I don't want to single out Colorado. It's of course not the only state with that problem. But there is an important question to be asked when states legalize. Why? Is it just for the tax money? Is it to create jobs? If so, jobs for whom? Is it a brand new idea or is it just a brand new chapter in our long complex relationship with weed and the people who use weed? And if legalization doesn't look backwards at all, if we only focus on the industry and the economic development opportunities does legalization simply recreate the same unequal system that came before?

Ann Marie Awad: On Something is a labor of love reported and written by me Ann Marie Awad with reporting from Natalie Moore produced and mixed by Brad Turner and Rebekah Romberg. Our editors for this episode are Curtis Fox and Rachel Estabrook. Music by Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher. Our executive producers are Rachel Estabrook and Kevin Dale. On Something is made possible by lots of talented people like Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen, Dave Burdick, Alison Borden, Matt Herz, and Iris Gottlieb. As a reminder, you can always reach out and leave us a voicemail with your story ideas or your personal experiences, or if you just want to say hi. The number to call is (720) 420-6587 that's (720) 420-6587. You can also shoot us an email at [email protected]. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at CPR.org.

Brad Turner: I can hear your angle changing while you're talking.

Ann Marie Awad: I just have like a natural habit in swivel chairs of just doing this.

Brad Turner: Well if you'd like me to get you a good hard stool, that can be arranged.

Ann Marie Awad: Okay.