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Illinois town will use recreational marijuana sales tax proceeds to fund local reparations program

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Evanston Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, proposed a reparations fund that Evanston City Council approved at their meeting on Nov. 25, 2019.

Evanston aldermen on Monday approved directing all sales tax revenue collected from recreational marijuana purchases to a fund that will establish a local reparations program.

Officials say the program will help the city’s black population stay in Evanston while also providing training for jobs and other benefits.

“We can implement funding to directly invest in black Evanston,” said Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, who proposed the reparations bill.

While Evanston officials have voted to permit, tax and appropriate money from recreational marijuana sales, many other suburbs have voted not to allow recreational marijuana dispensaries to open when the businesses become legal next year under state law.

Evanston leaders say they see the dispensaries as an opportunity to pay for a local reparations program that would address the lingering institutional effects of slavery and discrimination. The proposal passed 8-1, with Ald. Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, voting against it.

Simmons said the source of the money was especially appropriate, as many black residents were victims of the “war on drugs” and spent time in jail for smoking marijuana, a substance that in specific quantities will now be permitted in Illinois.

The tax on marijuana will “be invested in the community it unfairly policed and damaged,” Simmons said.

A committee of residents is currently examining ways to spend the money and how to best support the black community through housing, education and economic incentives. The fund will be capped at $10 million, according to city of Evanston staff reports. City estimates project the marijuana tax could generate $500,000 to $750,000 per year.

“This is a really special moment in the city of Evanston and also in the country,” said Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward.

Community members attending the meeting praised the effort and thanked the council for investing in residents who were harmed by discriminatory housing and other past policies.

“I support the approval of the ordinance for the city of Evanston to commit all of the anticipated tax revenue from the recreational marijuana businesses, to support work aimed at intentionally repairing harms done to the black community from policies and practices in so many different areas,” said Oliver Ruff, a retired teacher and Evanston resident.

Simmons’ proposal came as Evanston’s black population decreased from 22.5% of the population in 2000 to 16.9% in 2017, according to U.S. Census data.

The idea that the United States should make reparations to the descendants of slaves has been part of the national conversation since the slave trade ended, but there has been little formal action and much debate. Questions include what form reparations should take, and what institutions or individuals should make them.

Frustrated by the lack of action at the national level, Rue Simmons has said she believed a local reparations program could gain traction quickly and have a more immediate impact.

Aldermen Monday praised their local effort, which no one spoke against at the meeting, as a good start.

“We are on the right track,” said Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

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