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Black advocacy group blasts possible hemp ban and other Illinois policies | Illinois


(The Center Square) – The National Black Empowerment Action Fund, an advocacy group, is turning a critical eye toward top leadership in Illinois to highlight how years of what they call poor public policy choices have harmed and will harm the Black community.

“The economic climate in Illinois is particularly dire,” a report from NBEAF titled “Equity Delayed, Dreams Denied” said. “Illinois is ranked last in the nation for racial inequity, measured by employment and wealth. The Black unemployment rate in Illinois is the second highest in the country at 9.4%, double that of Hispanics and well above the 4.0% rate for white residents. It’s also more than 50% higher than the overall national Black unemployment.”

Future policy that could impact the Black community in Illinois is the regulating of hemp products, something that fell through the cracks this spring legislative session. The NBEAF said white entrepreneurs have disproportionately reaped the rewards of the cannabis industry, amassing over $1 billion in profits before a single social equity license had been issued.

Richard St. Paul, a senior advisor at NBEAF, suspects regulating hemp will further benefit white entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry.

“The social equity applications, those that are affecting Black people, are not on par with their white counterparts and it is such a great disparity, Black businesses able to get into the cannabis and white businesses that are already in cannabis, and when you add any type of ban on cannabis byproducts, like hemp, that further hurts the Black community,” said Paul. “In terms of the big states, like New York, Illinois is number one for Black unemployment.”

When Illinois started giving out licenses, 4,000 people applied for cannabis licenses under the social equity program and only 21 of those people got the licenses. In 2023, only 3.5% of the $1.58 billion in revenue generated in Illinois’ cannabis industry went to social equity license holders. The social equity program was for applicants who were or had a family member impacted by the war on drugs.

“He [Gov. J.B. Pritzker] said he wanted to right the wrongs of a failed drug policy and create jobs and opportunity for the communities that were hardest hit [by the war on drugs] and the community that was hardest hit was the Black community,” said Paul. “He also said he wanted to bring more resources to ensure the cannabis industry in Illinois remains the most equitable and that is not happening.”

House Bill 4293 sought to regulate cannabinoids derived from hemp. The bill didn’t advance during spring legislative session. Talks are to take place over the summer. Opponents said this bill would have outright banned hemp-derived products and would put minorities out of work.

The percentage of Black individuals employed in the cannabis industry has dwindled over time, now resting at a mere 9%, according to NBEAF. Paul believes the legislature’s recent push to ban hemp-derived products could be a deliberate attempt to keep Black-owned hemp businesses from competing with the dominantly white-owned cannabis industry.

“You’re going to see corporations who are able to get licenses coming in and of course they are going to try to keep the market to themselves because this is about money. This is what corporations do,” said Paul. “On the bright side, if you have legislators and officials, like Pritzker, are on the side of the people who were hardest hit [by the war on drugs] like the Black community, that can be overcome.”

Paul said because Black Illinoisans can’t get their hands on cannabis licenses, the hemp industry was an alternative. Similarly, with the signing of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in 2021, which also promised economic empowerment for Black Illinoisans, the outcome has been far from prosperous for Black people.

“So what’s not happening is they aren’t getting the credentials out to the Black community and therefore they aren’t able to compete for these green jobs, and they solely can be controlled by the executive branch with the stroke of a pen or a phone call to the agencies administering these credentials for green jobs,” said Paul.

Paul explained that Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity launched $37.9 million in funding for the Illinois Clean Jobs Workforce Network Program or “CEJA Workforce Hubs.” These hubs are supposed to offer training and job placement services.

“This grant opportunity is not just about funding training programs. It’s going to directly affect communities all across Illinois where these jobs are most needed and provide important resources for our working families,” said Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Westchester. 

Over the next several months, NBEAF will run a public education campaign, starting with an initial report on Pritzker’s handling of the cannabis and clean energy programs. The campaign, entitled “No More Broken Promises,” will highlight how poorly Black people have fared in the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago under Pritzker’s leadership.

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Caleb Alexander

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