The legalization of medical and recreational marijuana sales has generated more than a trillion dollars in revenue nationwide, making the cannabis industry a lucrative economic engine across the country. The most recent and 11th state to legalize marijuana, Illinois, collected a revenue of nearly $3.2 million dollars in the first day of legalization alone.
Yet starting a dispensary is no easy feat. It requires an intense application process, a nonrefundable $5,000 fee, and a clean criminal background. In Illinois, as in other states, people who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses often can’t take advantage of this burgeoning industry. Low-level marijuana offenders and those convicted of drug-related felonies are generally barred from the opportunity to work in the cannabis industry due to histories of drug use or trafficking.
There are a few exceptions. In some cases, those who have not had a drug felony conviction within the last 10 years are able to partake in the cannabis industry. A number of states that have legalized recreational marijuana—such as Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire, Oregon, and now Illinois—have initiatives to expunge the records of those arrested for carrying less than an ounce of weed.
Still, expunging records takes time. Until those records are expunged, previous nonviolent marijuana offenders can’t share in the wealth of the legal cannabis industry. In Illinois, records before 2000 may not be erased until Jan. 1, 2025. More recent records, those dating from 2013 to now, must be changed by early next year.
Chicago native Erick Nunez knows this reality all too well. As someone with a criminal record, he cannot work in the growing cannabis industry, one he contributed to as a young adult and when marijuana was more likely to be considered a dangerous drug. Nunez grew up on the city’s West Side, and he watched relatives and friends experimenting with the use and sale of marijuana.
Now 30, he remembered, “At [the age of] 12, 13 I started smoking weed. I saw my older brothers and older peers smoking weed and smelling like weed. I just wanted to experience [it]. And once I did, I loved weed,” Nunez said.
Nunez began to sell marijuana when he was 16 years old. Upon his dropping out of high school, his mother refused to financially support him, which led him to the need for “fast money and being able to take care of myself. I never had an end goal. I just needed to make money to get what I wanted,” he continued.
Selling and smoking marijuana caused run-ins with the Chicago Police Department. After being sentenced to probation three different times for possessing marijuana, he was incarcerated for selling crack cocaine. After those encounters with law enforcement, he had exhausted his chances under a three-strikes law that was ostensibly supposed to divert people from prison but actually fueled mass incarceration. On a fourth charge, he was convicted and sentenced to three years behind bars.
Edwin Perez has a similar story—and a similar isolation from today’s cannabis industry. “I grew up in an area that was drug-infested. Both of my parents abused drugs. I learned a lot about the drug trade early on in life. I started selling weed in eighth grade as a way to make money, but I never went without,” Perez said.
Perez became a teen parent at 16 years old. He made a living and supported his child through the drug trade. After selling marijuana from ages 13 to 16, he collected various misdemeanor convictions that made it even harder to find even the typical low-wage teenage jobs.
By 22, Perez was dealing other narcotics and was convicted for federal conspiracy, getting a decade in prison. “The early weed convictions kept me trapped in the streets,” he said. Now, those convictions are keeping him out of the cannabis trade.
“My weed felonies were for possessing 11 grams at a time, and now anyone over the age of 21 in Illinois can buy twice as much of that daily from a dispensary if they wanted to,” he said.
The cannabis industry and the contemporary prison-industrial complex were built on the backs of men like Nunez and Perez. But the opportunity to work in the industry legally is out of reach for them—and the 60% of Illinois felons who were convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Now that the business is booming, men like Nunez and Perez—unseen and criminalized pioneers of the industry—can’t reap the benefits.
And the benefits are immense. Before Illinois’ legalization on Jan. 1 of this year, 37 dispensaries were open and ready to sell products for recreational use. The tax on the medical and recreational products allow the state of Illinois and dispensary owners to profit nearly 41% more than the average street seller; an eighth of an ounce of marijuana commonly sells for around $80 in dispensaries, compared with $35 on the street.
That reinforces economic disparity and exclusion for those who were most targeted during the War on Drugs. Not only are Chicago’s Black and brown residents concentrated into high-poverty areas, they are over-policed and more likely to be ineligible for participation in the cannabis business.
In Illinois, not one dispensary is owned by a woman or person of color, and throughout the United States, 81% of dispensary owners are white males. Both Nunez and Perez are Puerto Rican.
Black and Latino men account for the largest demographic of those isolated from the cannabis industry as they face higher incarceration rates. As early as 1996, Human Rights Watch noted that Black people made up 90% of all persons jailed for drug offenses in Illinois; that number has dropped, but slowly. Once they get in the system, men of color around the nation face stricter sentencing than their white counterparts. A 2017 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that Black men’s sentences are almost 20% longer than those of white men charged with the same crime, even after controlling for criminal history and other factors. Latino men face less of a disparity than their Black counterparts, but with a likelihood of incarceration four times higher than their white peers, they also find too few prospects upon release.
It’s frustrating, said Perez, who sees behavior that once got him incarcerated now considered acceptable entrepreneurship. “The world wants everyone to respect [all] people, genders, and sexualities, to avoid discrimination,” he said. “But the world can’t respect me as a felon, as a changed man facing a different variation of discrimination.”