In the rare instances in which politicians acknowledge having consumed cannabis at all, they tend to defend their past by claiming they didn’t actually enjoy it. As cannabis moves closer and closer to the mainstream, however, it’s ever more important that political candidates address the issue with honesty and transparency. That’s where Anthony Clark comes in.

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A 37-year-old Air Force veteran, full-time high school teacher and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Clark is running for Congress in Illinois’ 7th District, which encompasses parts of Chicago as well as his home town of Oak Park.

Two years ago, the progressive political action committee Brand New Congress backed Clark in a bid to unseat incumbent Rep. Danny Davis (D); he was handily defeated. Now, Clark is gearing up for another primary battle against Davis (as well as Kina Collins and Kristine Schanbacher) in March 2020.

A registered medical marijuana patient, Clark has made no effort to disguise his own consumption; in fact, he has made it a core component of his campaign. In a remarkable and unprecedented campaign video, he sits down with two fellow Illinois residents to talk cannabis policy and health while hitting an array of joints and dabs.

We caught up with Clark in between classes at River Forest High School to dive into the successes and failures of Illinois’ recreational cannabis legislation (which goes into effect on January 1st), as well his approach to talking about cannabis with his students, and how he plans to use cannabis reform to differentiate himself from his main opponent, Representative Davis.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think Illinois did right with their recreational cannabis legislation? What do you wish the state had done differently with the law?

Legalization [in Illinois] is extremely important in regards to family health, jobs, community. I’m really excited about that. I would like to see the medical industry expanded; I would like to see our agriculture industry expanded. I don't think we’re doing enough at the state level to ensure that the communities most impacted by prohibition will now benefit from legalization.

What we’re trying to do with the platform and the campaign is address interconnected issues with interconnected solutions. When we talk about cannabis it’s not just about legalizing a formerly prohibited drug: it’s also how we address joblessness, how we address the war on drugs, disproportionate incarceration rates, violence in communities.

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Disproportionately black and brown and poor bodies have been placed in the criminal justice system in what we call ‘slavery by a new name.’ You're taking individuals away from their home, from their families; they come back home and they don't have the ability to obtain gainful and competitive employment. They get caught up in the system; that's why recidivism rates are so high. It’s a huge issue that reverberates.

How many families, parents, grandparents have been incarcerated or had their lives impacted due to cannabis? In Evanston, the neighboring city, they just passed a reparations bill so cannabis revenue in the community will go directly to addressing issues in the predominantly black community; ensuring they can remain in the community, ensuring their children have after-school programs, so on and so forth. State-wide, city-wide we need to look into more of a reparations model and accept the fact that the War on Drugs is racist, has been racist and cannabis being prohibited is racist and has been racist.

We just have to make sure we’re purposeful when looking at legalization through a reparations lens and see how to reinvest that into the communities that have been stripped. That goes way beyond writing a check. No, how do we invest in creating social and economic wealth? Prohibition denied creation of generational social and economic wealth. [In the new law] medical marijuana patients are the only people who can grow in their homes. Everyone should be able to grow in their homes.

I know there are guidelines around where you can and can’t smoke. Right now you can’t smoke on your front porch, and there are regulations for businesses. I’m hoping we can allow for smoke shops and places where people can congregate.

There needs to be [an] automatic expungement.

You shouldn't need to pay any dollars, obtain any counsel. We’re talking about marginalized communities, they don't have income or understanding or the capacity to seek counsel to help them through this process. We shouldn't put this burden on them to free themselves.

How about federal legalization?

That’s one of our major fights. I feel it ties into the Green New Deal, into a federal jobs guarantee; it ties into health care, Medicare For All. It can be used as a medicine but so many doctors are hindered right now by the influence of Big Pharma.

I was just hit by a car in August and my doctor wanted to prescribe opioids. I refused the opioids because I told him I had cannabis, it was the best pain reliever and doesn't come with a negative impact. He agreed with me. He said he would have prescribed it, but his hands were tied. 

Does cannabis come up around your students? If so, how do you address it?

As a teacher - shout out to all teachers - when you come into a classroom, you always have to identify how honest, how transparent you are; what kind of walls, what kind of shields you’re [putting up]. I feel like the best kinds of teachers are building relationships and trust. I don't want to see my students struggling with drugs or alcohol, anxiety, depression, and feel like I can't relate and they cannot connect with me. I’m gonna let them know I've experienced anxiety, I've experience depression, I’ve used drugs in my life.

I think having someone older than them - that they look up to and respect - lets them know they aren't alone, they have someone they can talk to and be honest and real with and that I can help them on their journey as well. Hopefully, they can learn from my triumphs and failures.

Anthony Clark Source: Twitter, @anthonyvclark20
 I've smoked the majority of my life since being a teen. I was in the military and was shot in 2007. I was diagnosed with PTSD and have Bechet’s disease from working with chemicals in the military; cannabis has been a medicine for me.

First, when I was diagnosed, I was on extremely toxic high levels of prednisone and other opioids, and I re-discovered cannabis after leaving the military.  The same manifestations I had with PTSD, I’m seeing those things in our students. Due to growing up in an environment with high levels of gun violence, inundated by violence, high levels of stress, entering a workforce that’s often closed off to them, knowing college is extremely expensive, with ridiculous amounts of debt, how can they follow their dreams? Many of them are self-medicating.

I’m not here to tell them what to do; I'm here to share my truths with them and hope that they can then be smarter about what they do. Take vaping for example. Many are buying vapes from irreparable places like gas stations on the corner. Anything unregulated can be extremely dangerous, you can kill yourself. So be smart about that, let's talk about that.

If you feel like you need to do this, where do you go? That’s the most important thing, providing my students with an individual they can trust, and identify why they may smoke: to be cool, self-medicating; what’s the underlying cause or reason why cannabis is good for you or helps you?

When you’re campaigning, are there do’s and don'ts you adhere to while talking about cannabis?

For me, no. Our philosophy is to be as bold as possible. The status quo has remained because individuals in-office approach issues and life as ‘How can I survive? How can I give people what they want to hear?’  Being a teacher, when we’re out and campaigning, I'm trying to educate.

I'm not telling you what I think you want to hear, I'm telling you what I believe you need to hear. It’s kind of funny, sometimes we’ll talk and individuals will wait until after the evening’s over, and come over and whisper their questions. It's wonderful to see so many people wait until after an event is over and come over with a personal question about [getting a medical card, or about a particular strain].

Representative Davis has recently come out in support of the MORE [Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement] Act. How do you differentiate yourself from him on cannabis reform? 

One thing we have to our advantage is that we moved him on the position. In 2018 he wasn't for the legalization of cannabis. In 2018 on his website he was for decriminalization and [leaving] it at the state level. Our camp pushed him. That’s what's important in regards to progress.

You have candidates focused on the status quo, putting party before people. They aren't being bold. They wait for someone else to fight, then they’ll sign their name to it after individuals have bled and sacrificed. We’re the ones bleeding and sacrificing. You can spend your life feeding the homeless, or ending homelessness. That’s the difference. He wouldn’t [support] the MORE Act if it wasn’t for our campaign. I want people to recognize interconnected issues.

It's so much bigger than someone getting high. When you look out into this world with prohibition ending, the same individuals who suffered are suffering now. We have to address this. It’s about livelihood, it’s about investing in communities, it’s about education, it’s about progressive change. I challenge people to open their minds up, whether they smoke or not, and recognize that [we need] an interconnected solution.