How Racism and Police Bias Gutted Illinois’s Medical Marijuana Program

Systemic prejudice keeps the medicine away.

This is the second installment in The KIND contributor Sam Stecklow's two-part, in-depth dispatches from Illinois's failing medical-marijuana pilot program. In Part II, Stecklow explores the role of perceived racism and police obstructionism in kneecapping the program in the Prairie State. 

Though the list of qualifying conditions is stiflingly restrictive and few doctors are writing recommendations for patients to join Illinois's Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, if you qualify, are able to find a doctor willing to sign the paperwork, and pay the $100 application fee, now you face another potential obstacle: The security measures insisted upon by law enforcement during legislation. Each and every person who wants to enroll in the program must have their fingerprints taken (at their own cost) and then entered into a state database––a requirement unique to Illinois.

According to Brian Gaughan, a retired police officer of 11 years in Iowa and Chicago and a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of current and former officers working against the effects of the War on Drugs, the fingerprinting stipulation disproportionately prevents African-American and Latino residents from participating in the Pilot Program—even if they do have one of the few conditions listed in the law. “It’s absolute insanity in Illinois, what they’ve done,” Gaughan says. “To require people to go get fingerprinted to get medicine from their physician? It just has the bootprint of Big Brotherhood crushing people. And since people of color are most certainly negatively affected by stop-and-frisk, illegal searches of automobiles, illegal stops of individuals walking down the street, those people are certainly disproportionately targeted and prohibited from being in the medical marijuana program in Illinois. I really think it’s structured for ultimate failure.”

Ross Morreale, executive director of the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois, an industry trade organization, agrees that the fingerprint requirement disproportionately targets people of color. “Are they more likely to be denied access because of a background check?” he asks rhetorically. Similarly, he says, Latinos, regardless of official documentation status, are wary of entering their fingerprints into a state database. 

Attorney Dina Rollman of Chicago-based cannabis law firm Rollman & Dahlin notes that though African-Americans and white people use cannabis at similar rates, black people nationwide are penalized about four times as often for possession. “There’s a lot of discriminatory police practices and other forms of discrimination in our society, which is why African-Americans would have the fingerprinting issue be a bigger hurdle for access. It does become an unfair barrier to African-American patients having access to this medicine,” she says. Bryna Dahlin, the Dahlin of Rollman & Dahlin, adds, “If you’ve got a lack of trust in the system, that [fingerprinting] is going to be an intimidating thing…even if you don’t have a record. It’s really unfair from a number of angles.”

Advocates have begun framing the fingerprinting stipulation as an invasion of privacy and civil rights. “No one,” Kirsten Velasco of Illinois Women in Cannabis wrote in a Reboot Illinois blog post last February, “is required to be fingerprinted for any other medicine—regardless of street value, addictiveness, or other negative side-effects.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, one group that benefits from the continued criminalization of cannabis and the stunted medical program is the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs. In 2013, they joined a group of 13 organizations to found Illinois Partners Providing Marijuana Education with the stated goal “to educate the public and legislators about the facts related to marijuana and counter misinformation and distortions of fact being heavily publicized by pro-marijuana legalization lobbyists.”


According to Gaughan, education is not the only thing on their minds. “Police chiefs, they’re really not policemen. They used to be policemen. Now what they are is administrators,” he says. “Their whole concern is budgetary issues––am I gonna get money for this, am I gonna get money for squad cars, am I gonna get money to fix the leaky roof on this district’s police station––and where the money all comes from are drug arrests. When you go out as a policeman, and you arrest someone for burglary, or armed robbery, or sexual assault, or car theft, or battery, or beating up your neighbor ‘cause he’s playing his stereo too loud––there’s no financial incentive. A police department could spend a fortune investigating a home invasion, literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses. And if they’re 'successful,' there is no financial reward for that. It’s a net loss. But if it’s a guy who’s selling weed out of his house, and the police put two months’ work of investigative ability into that, all of a sudden it’s like, 'Hey man, we could take this guy’s house if we convict him of this shit. We could seize his bank accounts. We could take his cars.' That’s what they concentrate their efforts on. Police chiefs certainly don’t want cannabis to be legalized. That would cut into their budget, their finances.”

Between 1986, the year after the Department of Justice established its Assets Forfeiture Fund, and 2014, its revenue from civil asset forfeitures increased 4,667 percent, according to a 2015 report from the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm. The same report graded Illinois’s civil forfeiture law a D-, citing it for offering property owners few protections and funneling 90 percent of the collected funds to law enforcement. 

The Illinois Association of Police Chiefs didn’t respond to a request for comment.


Image via Ocean Recovery Centre

Language elsewhere in the law bars Illinois residents who have been convicted of a drug-related felony from enrolling in the program. That’s to say, if police have caught you more than once with a little under a half-ounce, and you’ve been prosecuted and convicted, you’re automatically disqualified. According to experts, this stipulation is racially coded.

“[The language barring people with felony drug convictions exists] to create an artificial distinction between 'real' medical consumers. If you have a drug law violation, then you’re not,” says Kathleen Kane-Willis, a drug policy expert and director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. “Which makes no sense at all. You could have a drug-law violation for something you’re in recovery for, let’s just say, and then have a qualifying condition. You might not want to use an opioid drug or another prescription drug because of your recovery status.… It’s hard to say racism isn’t playing a role here. I hate to say, unequivocally, that it is race, but I think it is, probably, that it is race.”

Cook County prosecutes felony drug charges against African-Americans almost twice as much as white people, and Latinos about one and a half times as much. 

“I could be a convicted murderer,” Gaughan says, “and go to my physician, and get a prescription tomorrow for Oxycontin. And that would be okay. The perverse logic of it makes no sense to me whatsoever.” Similarly, Dahlin says, “White-collar criminals who could have embezzled millions are not barred from receiving a medical cannabis card, while those convicted of non-violent drug felonies are. Drug felonies have a disproportionate impact on people of color. We’re seeing the effects of that now.”

The data back up the concerns: Black people in Illinois are more likely to rack up the low-level drug charges necessary to bar them from participating in the Pilot Program, despite a near-identical rate of use to white people. In Cook County, which contains Chicago and some suburbs, 80 percent of people who enter the felony court system are African-American, according to a report by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission based on data from 2005. The report also found that Cook County prosecutes felony drug charges against African-Americans almost twice as much as white people, and Latinos about one and a half times as much. 

An ACLU study of 2010 FBI data found that Cook County had the third-greatest rate of racial disparity in cannabis possession arrests of highly populated counties in the nation. So in 2012, Chicago City Council passed an ordinance decriminalizing possession of under 15 grams, meaning that police could choose to impose a three-figure fine on those caught with small amounts instead of jailing them. Two years later, though, the Chicago Reader reported that the ordinance, on a practical level, only benefitted white residents of the city’s North Side, if anyone at all.

While Chicago police were indeed arresting fewer people for low-level possession charges in favor of ticketing them, they were still making an average of 44 low-level cannabis arrests a day, down from 91 in 2010. Of those arrested, 78 percent were African-American, and 17 percent were Latino. (Similarly, 70 percent of those ticketed were African-American.) “While low-level pot possession has essentially been decriminalized for residents of affluent neighborhoods,” the Reader’s Mick Dumke wrote, “others are routinely stopped and cuffed in an ongoing crackdown in poor, minority areas.”

A subsequent study from Kane-Willis’ Illinois Consortium found that “implementation of the pot-ticket ordinance in Chicago and other municipalities across the state is uneven, incomplete, unjust and expensive.” It wouldn’t be until the day before April 20, 2015 that actual actions were taken, when Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced that her office would dismiss all misdemeanor cannabis possession cases for those with less than three arrests or citations and, crucially, that an official program would be created to link those charged with felony possession with social services instead of pushing criminal penalties.

Image via Roswellwashere/VSCO

Statewide, cannabis decriminalization efforts have been stopped up in a game of chicken Governor Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan are playing over the state budget, which is nine months overdue.

Rauner sent a bill back to the General Assembly in September that would have decriminalized possession of 15 grams of cannabis and replaced jail time with a fine up to $125 with an amendatory veto changing the numbers to 10 grams and $200, respectively.

The GA declined to approve Rauner's amendment within the allotted 15 days, with Democrats not wanting to be seen publicly conceding to the Governor’s demands––even though the same House sponsor, Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy, whose 14th state district covers Chicago’s Far North Side, filed a bill that mirrored the amendment’s language two months later. (Matt Muir, a spokesperson for Cassidy, said that Rauner’s amendatory veto was “unconstitutional” but declined to elaborate.)

Cassidy’s new decriminalization bill, HB 4357, is currently making its way through the House. Muir believes there’s a “chance” it will get passed before the 2016 budget, which pundits are penciling in for sometime in April(!), but it’s “unclear.”

Under the current law, the Cannabis Control Act, possession of up to 2.5 grams––less than an eighth of an ounce––results in 30 days jail time and a maximum fine of $1,500. Any more than that, and you’re looking at half a year behind bars. And, of course, get caught twice with more than 10 grams, and it’s a felony charge, forever barring you from the state’s medical cannabis program (or at least until that stipulation is overturned). 

According to the most recent Illinois Department of Public Health records available, from June 2015 (when the project was under half its current size), nearly 70 percent of Illinoisans that have been accepted to the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program are white. Efforts to obtain more recent records from the Illinois Department of Public Health through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act have been delayed past press time. 

Read Part 1, "The Intentional Failure of Illinois's Medical Marijuana Program" here. 

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