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Why Illinois's LGBTQ Organization Is Fighting to Decriminalize Pot

ILLINOIS cannabis

It's a civil rights issue, writes Brian C. Johnson.

What if I told you that in Illinois, we criminalize an activity that LGBTQ people engage in twice as much as our straight and cisgender peers? You would think that as the state's LGBTQ civil rights group, we should oppose such a criminal framework.

What if I told you that although white and African-American communities engage in that same activity at equal rates, African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested than their white peers for doing so? You would think that as a group that cares about full equality, we should oppose such racially biased criminalization.

What if I told you that decriminalizing and regulating that activity could bring in upwards of half a billion dollars a year into government coffers; revenue that could help strengthen our social safety net? You would think that as a group that seeks to protect the most vulnerable among us, we would support the decriminalization and regulation of that activity.

We agree.

That is why this week, we at Equality Illinois, the state's civil rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Illinoisans, expressed our public support for a bill in our state legislature (SB 7) that would decriminalize and regulate the recreational use of cannabis by anyone 21 years or older.

Some in our state thought this was a curious development. As an LGBTQ civil rights group, why did we do this?

The decision was simple.

First, LGBTQ people use cannabis at more than double the rates of non-LGBTQ people according to data from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health sponsored by the US Department of Health & Human Services. The criminalization of cannabis use therefore disproportionately harms the LGBTQ community. By legalizing cannabis for recreational use by anyone over the age of 21, SB 7 has the potential to reduce the number of LGBTQ people caught up in Illinois's criminal justice system.

Second, communities of color, including LGBTQ communities of color, have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis criminalization. A 2013 report issued by the ACLU highlighted that despite roughly equal rates of cannabis usage by white and African-American communities in the United States, African-Americans were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white Americans. The current bill places justice for communities of color at the center by seeking an equitable solution to the historic disproportionate impact of criminalization in communities of color by the War on Drugs.

Finally, we in Illinois face a massive structural budget deficit. This deficit threatens our ability to fund the social services that many in our community need the most: services that would increase access to high quality health care, bolster our state's schools, and provide more housing for those who need it.

Serving as an LGBTQ civil rights organization, we have to meet the needs of our community wherever we face injustice. This has forced us at Equality Illinois to weigh in on issues where our community faces disproportionate harm, even if our LGBTQ identities are not the explicitly stated reason for that harm. And it has forced us to find ways to push for full equality for members of our community who face harm because they move in the world with multiple historically marginalized identities, LGBTQ and otherwise.

In Illinois, it is time to decriminalize and regulate the recreational use of cannabis. We believe the LGBTQ community, communities of color, and our state at large will be better off when we stop unjustly enforcing laws that criminalize recreational cannabis use and start regulating and collecting revenue from it instead. We hope cannabis is decriminalized soon in Illinois. And we hope other states think deeply and critically about doing so as well.

Brian C. Johnson is the CEO of Equality Illinois.

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