Illinois Rep. Kelly Cassidy Wants State to Be Nation’s Cannabis Gold Standard

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J.B. Pritzker will soon become governor of Illinois. Because the Democrat supported cannabis legalization during his campaign, advocates and industry players are banging the drum for a quick win on adult-use legalization in Illinois next year.

But one of the primary drivers of the new legislation is taking a slow, methodical approach.

Kelly Cassidy, a three-term state representative representing a Chicago-area district from the blue state of Illinois, tells Cannabis Wire that it’s not about simply making legalization happen — it’s about getting it right. Last year, she introduced a measure to legalize cannabis for adult-use, and she has held forums and town halls all over the state while doing her own research into what has worked in adult-use markets in states that already have legalized.

Cassidy told Cannabis Wire that she hopes Illinois’ eventual model will be heralded as the national standard as she works to introduce a new bill at the beginning of next year. Sen. Heather Steans, another Chicago-area Democrat, is working on companion legislation to introduce in the state Senate.  

Even though Cassidy says there are no guarantees on whether legalization will happen in the next legislative session, the political wind is at their back. Pritzker promised adult-use legalization alongside initiatives that allow minority communities ravaged by America’s Drug Wars to benefit. His campaign platform listed, for example, that he would commute marijuana-related sentences and “reinvest in communities hit hardest by the war on drugs and the legacy of mass incarceration.”

Another impetus for lawmakers: tax revenue. A recent report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois said that Illinois is poised for a $1.6 billion cannabis market. A 26.25% tax (in addition to other revenue provided by the state’s sales tax) would generate $525 million for the state and create close to 24,000 jobs, the report found. Such a cannabis tax would be among the highest in the country, according to the Tax Foundation.

While any tax bounty from prospective cannabis legalization represents a relatively modest start on the state’s nearly $15 billion budget deficit in the last fiscal year, dollars and the good politics that come with agreeing with an incoming governor in a state where cannabis legalization is popular leaves few who believe cannabis legalization won’t happen quickly in Illinois.

That includes Republicans in a statehouse controlled by Democrats. Republican state Sen. Jason Barickman recently told the Bloomington, Illinois Pantagraph that Republicans can’t stop legalization but would seek to include the ability for localities to opt-out, protection for employers to have strict drug workplace rules, and increased funding for law enforcement.

While Pritzker has gotten most of the limelight for the cannabis-related momentum, Rep. Cassidy told Cannabis Wire about her conversations with the man key to any legislation in Illinois — House Speaker Michael Madigan. And as the medical cannabis industry jockeys for favorable regulations, Cassidy, a self-described “super policy geek,” says she’ll keep her eye on what matters most to her as she irons out the details on the bill: criminal justice reform.

(This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.)

Why didn’t the cannabis legalization bill you introduced last year gain more traction?

Cassidy: We never intended to move that bill — we actually introduced the bill as a conversation starter. We knew going in that [Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner] wouldn’t support it. And so we actually set out with a very deliberate plan to use that time as productively as we could so that we would be ready in the event we got a new governor. And lo and behold we did. We spent the last year and a half using that bill as sort of a jumping off point for conversations with stakeholders all over the spectrum.

Law enforcement in particular we’ve been very frank in looking for their feedback, their input on what a post-legalization law enforcement life will look like so that we can do it right. It’s been a unique experience … but very enjoyable, frankly, for a super policy geek. That’s really fun. I have a weird definition of fun but you know it’s been really fun.

Tell us about those conversations with law enforcement and how you plan to deal with their concerns in the bill.

Cassidy: What’s most interesting is we actually hear from rank and file and even some leadership in local municipalities who either support [cannabis law reform] or are neutral. It’s really the institutional groups — like the chiefs of police, the associations that are really dug in. When we did the civil enforcement bill, when we passed the bill for ticketing for small amounts, we had worked with prosecutors to change the way we handled DUI. We had previously had a zero tolerance law for cannabis — any presence in your system would be evidence of impairment. And obviously we all know that that’s not accurate. And so we actually looked at some of the studies, set a higher blood or saliva level and we allowed for the use of the roadside cheek swab technology that was just emerging at that point. … One of the things we’ve committed to very early on was to ensure that some portion of the revenue from legalization would be dedicated to some law enforcement use, in particular on the DUI issue.  

What will your bill address in terms of equity, community reinvestment, expungement and other criminal justice issues?

Cassidy: I’ve said this once before that this is the hill I will die on. This is my ‘why.’ Doing the social justice piece is the reason I’m doing this. We want to be the model, we want people to say ‘let’s just do what Illinois did’ because it’s working so well and very much so in this area. So I think of that piece as a three legged stool. We want to restore people’s records — that restoration is critically important. We wanted to do as close to an automatic expungement process as is feasible under our court system. We want to reach as far back and get as many people’s records cleared as possible. We want to improve access to the industry, and create more on-ramps for women and people of color to get into this industry and take part in this growth. And we want to repair the harm to communities by the War on Drugs .

And each one of them is equally important and without any one of them I don’t think we’re doing it right.

Are there any models that you look at as templates?

We’ve spent some time with the folks out at the Hood Incubator in Oakland talking about in particular their access to the industry stuff that they’ve done, which has been really innovative and fun. You know the challenge is taking something that works in a city and making it a statewide thing. But I love the work that they’re doing. I’m also looking a lot at Massachusetts for the reinvestment, restoration stuff. And you know that’s the beauty of our approach to this being able to very deliberately go through everything that everyone’s doing and find ways to make it work for Illinois.

Why is criminal justice reform so important to you?

Cassidy: Criminal justice reform has been really the centerpiece of my political work for the last going on twenty-some years now. I worked in the office of the state’s attorney in Cook County. I was very intentionally brought in to start to push these issues from within. And I really became very passionate about our ability to actually get justice right. And so you know I’ve worked on that for most of my career. So I come from that place. But I also grew up in a community where I saw people’s lives destroyed by drug arrests.

Do you expect the criminal justice reform element will be contentious?

Yes, I think it’s going to be a challenge. We’ve done pretty well here in Illinois in terms of getting good not just bipartisan support but good coalition support inclusive of law enforcement on a lot of our reform efforts. I think the expungements will be a challenge. We’re very fortunate to have some great allies within the law enforcement community there. The Cook County State’s Attorney, Kim Foxx, has been such an outspoken leader on issues like this that I think that while there will be challenges and there will be pushback there are some very credible folks who believe this is the right thing to do even within that community.

What do you think is going to be the toughest sell politically?

Cassidy: I do think that home grow is one of our bigger challenges because it’s really easy to single it out as unnecessary, if you will. I argue that there is a necessity in particular when we’re talking about patients. If you don’t have the means to buy the product, you’re stuck with a choice between challenging your budget even further, or accepting a potentially toxic drug because your insurance covers it. That’s just not right, I do push back on that pretty hard. Let’s spend a minute thinking about maybe someone with rheumatoid arthritis who needs anti-inflammatory and pain relief. The drugs for that are usually biologic infusions that you take, they cost tens of thousands of dollars but insurance covers them. And they carry with them all sorts of crazy side effects, including, you know, every time they do it they have to warn you that you might get cancer from it. Or you could get your relief with cannabis.

In terms of Governor-elect Pritzker and Mike Madigan, have you discussed this with them specifically?

Cassidy: This is a very high priority for the governor-elect. And I actually just spoke to Speaker Madigan [recently] about the bill. And I’m giving him a much more thorough briefing in the weeks ahead. And interestingly enough, you asked about this expungement thing, I think that was one of the things he wanted to know more about, that he was pleased to hear was already in there and that we had already contemplated and figured out a path for it, because this is something that’s very important to a lot of my colleagues who represent communities of color or represent over-policed communities. My district is one of them. We have a high rate of returning citizens [those with felony convictions] in my community. And so I’ve worked on sealing and expungement for quite a while already. So it’s an area I’m very comfortable working with.

Tell me a little bit more about that phone call if you would with Mike Madigan.

Cassidy: Well it was actually a face-to-face meeting and it was frankly a very cordial chat and not a huge degree of detail but he was very interested to hear what our process had been, and  how far along we were.

… And he shared that the governor-elect had let him know how important it was to him as well. So I’ll be meeting again with him and with the [incoming governor’s] chief of staff and House counsel to make sure that we dot all the i’s and cross all the T’s and have it ready to go on day one.

You’re dealing with a Democratic statehouse and a supportive new governor. Is there any reason that this wouldn’t pass this session?

Kelly: I can’t give you a guarantee this is going to pass this year. I would never do that because I have seen the wheels come off things that are even more of a lock. So, I’m not going to say you can take this to the bank but I am going to say we’re very well positioned. We need 60 votes in the house 30 votes in the Senate and the governor’s signature. And we’re working hard towards getting that.

There is a story out in the Chicago Tribune about a pastor calling cannabis legalization ‘pimping’ of minority communities. What do you make of that and the broader SAM opposition effort?

CASSIDY: They get to do what they want to do. Prohibitionists are going to prohibit. I find that article almost – it was really hard to even come up with a response to it because it’s a bit ludicrous. And, frankly the use of that word is offensive.

We’ve worked incredibly closely with our colleagues in the black and Latino caucuses on this bill, on this issue. The results are going to speak for themselves, frankly. This is creating in-roads, creating opportunity, and repairing harm. It’s really that simple.

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