The proposal to legalize the adult use of cannabis addresses both the racially discriminatory enforcement of cannabis laws and violent crime rates. And that's a start.
Crains Chicago - May 17th, 2019
Although gun violence has fallen in Chicago, the city’s 540 murders last year far outpaces the murder rates in our big city peers of New York and Los Angeles, and per capita violent crime rates in Illinois cities like Springfield, Rockford and East St. Louis are even worse than Chicago.
At the same time, the "war on drugs" continues to be a massive failure. Prohibition of cannabis has failed to affect significantly the supply, demand or use of the drugs, and it has been enforced in a woeful racially discriminatory manner. Black and brown communities have been given felony records, received probation and been incarcerated at substantially higher rates when compared to self-reported drug use by Caucasians. This has crippled their earning power, family structure and freedom.
We can’t expect police and prisons alone to end a public health crisis for substance abuse and gun violence, problems that require the delivery of mental health services, youth mentoring, jobs, and other holistic interventions. Local and state governments have never had a problem paying for the punitive solutions that have gotten us to where we are now, where substance abuse and community violence have reached unacceptable levels.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposal to legalize the adult use of cannabis addresses both issues, the racially discriminatory enforcement of cannabis laws and violent crime rates, which could be reduced through the Restoring Our Communities program.
After enforcement and administrative costs are paid, the bill would earmark 25 percent of the remaining cannabis tax revenues to the ROC for violence reduction, continued rehabilitation of people leaving prison and community health initiatives around the state. The investment in these types of programs was the key to reducing violence in New York and Los Angeles, but we haven’t seen that kind of investment by our state and local governments.
However, a bill isn’t a law, and some legislators have questioned the amount of money that goes back into the communities that served as the battlefield for the war on drugs. Others don’t want it to become law in any form. Both groups seem to be fine ignoring decades of harm or are unwilling to do much about it.
If the governor and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, remain true to their position that violence has become a public health crisis requiring a concerted effort to make communities healthy, they will continue to insist that much of the new revenue be devoted to rebuilding communities with high rates of violence.
They also must continue to insist that the money be spent wisely and in coordination and consultation with leaders in communities most impacted by crime. Those leaders can help identify needs and assets, and then create solutions, adopting best practices that have been proven to reduce violence elsewhere. In the process, the state can help small, community-based organizations grow stronger and reach their goals for even brighter future development.
Finally, even a response to a crisis should include evaluation of the success of the response. Each of the communities will be asked to set goals, measure progress toward those goals and periodically evaluate progress.
By incorporating best practices, strengthening community-level organizations, targeting highest-need communities, coordinating state services to those communities and measuring and reporting progress to the public, we can create jobs and bring housing, employment training, child care, health care and other services to those neighborhoods.
Only a few months into his four-year term, Pritzker could go down in history as the governor responsible for legalizing cannabis. If the bill ultimately passed by the General Assembly does include his proposal to spend new revenues to assist violence-plagued communities, he will go down in history as something much more important: the governor who made Illinois safer.
Sharone Mitchell Jr. is deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project.