Evanston is a city located north of Chicago in Illinois with a population of about 75,000 people. A state law will allow recreational marijuana sales starting next year but several cities have already voted to prevent stores selling cannabis from opening. However, Evanston will not only allow the sales it will also collect taxes for a special reparations fund that is designed to hand out cash payments to black residents. The Chicago Tribune reports the tax is expected to raise at least $500,000 per year:

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…

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.

Part of the motivation here is that Evanston was about 22 percent black in 2000 but as of 2017 that figure has dropped to under 17 percent. So the reparations fund is designed as an anti-gentrification measure. The Alderman who proposed the plan says it’s also intended to make up for the fact that black Americans are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs:

“Our community was damaged due to the war on drugs and marijuana convictions. This is a chance to correct that,” Robin Rue Simmons, a black alderman who represents the city’s historically black Fifth Ward, told The Washington Post. “Our disadvantage and discrimination has continued beyond outlawing Jim Crow and beyond enslavement.”

The plan stems from the idea that African Americans should disproportionately benefit from the sale of cannabis, Simmons said, because they have been disproportionately affected by the policing of marijuana — both nationally and locally. In the past three years, nearly three-quarters of those arrested on marijuana possession charges in Evanston were African American, according to city officials…

“This is something radical to preserve the black population,” Simmons said, “and let the black community know that we see the flight.”

This plan didn’t happen overnight. Evanston has a “chief equity officer and a commission on equity and empowerment” and was inspired to explore reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

As interest spread in race-based reparations, largely ignited by a 2014 essay in the Atlantic from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Evanston began exploring the idea on a local level. A commission hosted town hall meetings to hear what reparations might look like. Officials and residents drafted dozens of possibilities.

The town still doesn’t have a plan to distribute the money it collects, which seems like it will become a problem pretty quickly. There are always more needs than funds available. Deciding who benefits is going to be a minefield.

But the big issue I don’t see addressed by the Post or the Tribune is whether this is constitutional or not. The government does have the right to tax and spend but doing so for the benefit of one particular race raises other issues. The Post’s Charles Lane pointed to some of these back in August:

Under the 14th Amendment, a race-conscious policy, state or federal, could be enacted only if it passed “strict scrutiny” — that is, if it was “narrowly tailored” to meet a “compelling” government interest, through the “least restrictive” means available.

“Diversity” in higher education was a compelling interest, the court ruled, and could be addressed through admissions programs that took race into account but provided all applicants individualized consideration.

In most contexts, though, the court required government to show that it was redressing harm clearly caused by a discriminatory policy, and that government had exhausted other remedies before trying race-conscious ones.

The story goes on to say that in order to meet this test, the payments would have to be restricted to a specific group who were being compensated for a specific wrong. I’m not an attorney but it seems to me that Evanston’s plan is too broad to pass muster if someone who moved from Africa six months ago would be eligible. Whether this plan survives or not, it does get people talking which is one of the goals of reparations supporters at this point.

Here’s CBS Chicago’s report on the reparation fund: