A Legalization Bill Will Go Down to the Wire

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Illinois lawmakers have pushed until the end of April the introduction of a bill that would legalize cannabis for adult use, setting up a potentially dramatic late-session debate shortly before lawmakers leave Springfield. Much of that debate will be around issues of equity and criminal justice.

Last week’s failure of legalization measures in New York’s budget process and in New Jersey’s legislature—both despite the support of those state’s governors and top lawmakers—has put pressure on Illinois to overcome concerns similar to those that arose the two East Coast Democratic-controlled state houses.

And they’ll have a short window to do it in. Lawmakers exit the Illinois Capitol at the end of May.

Representative Kelly Cassidy, the measure’s primary champion in the House, told Cannabis Wire in an interview that such a short timeline is not unheard of for major legislation in Springfield. Cassidy, along with Senator Heather Steans, has held dozens of town halls over the state in the last two years. A working group of about forty—with members ranging from business groups to law enforcement and pro-cannabis advocates—is helping to shape the bill’s final language, she said, along with the administration of Governor J.B. Pritzker.

Cassidy said the cannabis legalization setbacks in New York and New Jersey bolstered her positive feelings about process in Illinois, which she described as careful and fully considered. “It makes me feel pretty good about the process we’ve undertaken in terms of the really deliberate and extensive public conversation we’ve had,” she said. “I feel in some ways this validates how deliberate we’ve been. We’ve done our homework.”

The working group is tackling a range of big picture issues when it comes to the state’s legalization bill, she said, including social justice and equity—how to ensure the communities most harmed by America’s drug wars benefit from legalization. In Illinois, key African American and Latino lawmakers are involved in the equity discussions, convened by Christian Mitchell, a deputy governor in Pritzker’s administration.   

“It’s really the details at this point, and that runs the gamut,” Cassidy said. “How do we roll out the licenses? What is the timeline? How do we structure the equity? Who will oversee which portions?” Lawmakers are also committed to a low tax rate, she said, to try to wipe out the black market.

Still, a majority of the members of the Illinois House signed on to a resolution calling for the state to slow down the legalization bill. The resolution is being pushed by the anti-legalization group Healthy and Productive Illinois, affiliated with the national non-profit Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization at the federal and state level.  

Illinois lawmakers say social justice and equity as a part of cannabis legalization is particularly important to them. They’re not alone. Lawmakers and regulators in the early legalization states of Colorado and California have recently said they are increasingly worried about the industry’s lack of diversity and disproportionate arrests of people of color for cannabis-related crimes, which has also become a flash point among early Democratic presidential contenders.

Meanwhile, the anti-legalization group SAM believes the timing of the bill is a “net positive,” Luke Niforatos, the group’s senior policy advisor, told Cannabis Wire.  

“There are pros and cons,” Niforatos said of his group’s perspective on the timeline. “A tighter window is better in that it puts people’s feet to the fire and they have to come down on the bill very quickly. The obvious disadvantage is, we don’t know what they’re working on in terms of the specifics, and we’ll have to scramble once the bill is introduced.”

But overall, Niforatos said the timeline gives the group more time to rally support and lobby undecided lawmakers. “By the time it’s May, we’re going to have a very large coalition,” he said.

The group is planning a series of town halls to spread its message that legalization would benefit large corporations at the expense of communities of color. Niforatos also touted recent comments by the head of Illinois’ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who has called cannabis legalization “a form of modern-day slavery,” according to the State Journal-Register.

Niforatos said SAM expects to spend in the “low six figures” this year on both lobbying and grassroots efforts in hopes of defeating the legalization bill.

So far, Governor Pritzker and leaders in the House and Senate have been united on the bill’s key aims, including the equity provisions.

On Saturday, three Chicago-area lawmakers sought to assure a crowd of about sixty at a public library branch on Chicago’s South Side that lawmakers would make sure that communities of color benefit from legalization. Representative Sonya Harper, Senator Toi Hutchinson, and Senator Mattie Hunter told the crowd of would-be cannabis entrepreneurs that Illinois has an opportunity to shape a more diverse future for the industry.

Hutchinson said that federal prohibition is, for now, an opportunity for the state. The minute Congress takes cannabis off of Schedule 1, she said, “we will lose our opportunity to bake in the equity pieces we need to. While we’re in this gray area federally, we have an opportunity in Illinois to make sure we get what we need, in a way that’s different than most other states.”

Harper kicked off the event by affirming her commitment to passing statewide legislation that will lower barriers to entry to the mostly-white cannabis business and redress the damage done to communities of color by the War on Drugs.

“How do we get people from the community into those businesses?” she asked. “Most importantly, how do we give reparations and restoration to people whose lives have been destroyed because of the criminalization of cannabis?”

While the details haven’t all been hammered out, Kareem Kenyatta of the Marijuana Policy Project told the crowd that lawmakers are committed to a “three-legged stool” of social equity in Illinois’ draft bill. All three would be a first for a state to implement successfully. They are:

  • Automatic expungement of criminal records stemming from cannabis-related offenses—everything from misdemeanors to serious felonies. States have struggled to implement such a provision, given the lack of uniformity around court records and law enforcement backlash;
  • An “incubator program” that would allow people with lower amounts of capital in communities of color to enter the industry;
  • A new initiative called Restore Our Communities, in which a statewide board would redistribute some of the revenue from selling cannabis to social service programs within local communities. “You tell the state what kinds of grants you need to bring the types of programs that will help out folks throughout the community, whether that’s financial literacy, jobs training, or other things,” Kenyatta said.

Cassidy said in a previous interview with Cannabis Wire that the she wants Illinois to be the nation’s gold standard for its equity and social justice provisions. “We want to be the model, we want people to say, ‘Let’s just do what Illinois did’ because it’s working so well,” she said. She concedes, however, that despite what she called a “really deliberate and extensive public conversation,” any major legislation comes with difficulty. “Wheels fall off this stuff all the time,” she said.

Harper, a member of the state’s legislative Black Caucus, which has been involved in negotiating the bill, told a questioner on Saturday that if the equity provisions didn’t go far enough, she would work to block the bill.

Still, she sounded a note of optimism: “We’re working as a team with the bill’s sponsors, with the current industry, and with the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to craft one bill that we hope will solve all of these issues,” she said. “We want to work in one direction collaboratively, not combatively, on this issue.”

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