Illinois Ushers in Legal Cannabis, With a Focus on Social Justice


After weeks of serious debate on a whirlwind timeline, the Illinois General Assembly ushered in a new era for cannabis in the state on Friday, as the House of Representatives, voting 66-47, sent the most expansive and far-reaching legalization bill in US history to the desk of Governor J.B. Pritzker.

Pritzker, who campaigned on a promise to legalize adult-use cannabis, won’t have the distinction of being the first governor whose signature legalizes cannabis by bill instead of by ballot initiative—that goes to Vermont. But the governor will be able to say that Illinois is the first state to pass expansive cannabis legislation covering taxed and regulated sales, not to mention social equity and social justice reform, all in one pass.

One other feather for the governor’s cap: Pritzker and the Illinois Democrats have now done something that other leaders in Democratic-led statehouses—namely New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—have also promised but, so far, been unable to deliver.

When the final vote was tallied, after more than four hours of contentious debate on Friday, House members cheered. “It is time to hit the reset button on the war on drugs,” the bill’s primary sponsor, Representative Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, told fellow House members. “We have the opportunity today to set the gold standard.”

The bill legalizes possession and sale of up to thirty grams of cannabis, ensures small businesses and disadvantaged communities and applicants receive priority in the state’s business licensing process, expunges past convictions related to cannabis, and delivers dollars to communities most affected by America’s drug war.

Soon after the vote, Pritzker said in a statement: “The state of Illinois just made history, legalizing adult-use cannabis with the most equity-centric approach in the nation. This will have a transformational impact on our state, creating opportunity in the communities that need it most and giving so many a second chance,” he said. “In the interest of equity and criminal justice reform, I look forward to signing this monumental legislation.”

The first legal sale of cannabis in Illinois is expected in January.

The Black Caucus divided

The House’s legislative Black Caucus were considered key to legalization’s prospects, and the debate Friday showed that its members remain deeply divided on the issue. The more than 500-page original draft was delivered earlier this month, and a new 600-page final version emerged on Wednesday.

Some members questioned the speed, while others asked why social justice initiatives had to be done at the same time the state was legalizing cannabis.

Representative Curtis Tarver, a Democrat and member of the Black Caucus from Chicago’s South Side, said he wasn’t buying the new focus on black communities and a newfound desire for social equity, saying the suddenness of the shift “is offensive to me as a black man.” He argued that the legislature could have addressed those issues, particularly on social justice, outside of the legalization debate. “We’ve had fifty damn years to work on the issue,” he said. “Now all of sudden when there’s an opportunity to make money we believe in criminal justice reform? This is not criminal justice reform at all. This is about money, period.”

Others disagreed. Representative Marcus Evans, another member of the legislative Black Caucus, said he was touched that, for the first time, a bill was centered around the needs of the black community. “I see this bill and, as a black man, it gets me emotional,” he said. “Finally they will look at my community and say…‘we want you to have a piece of the pie.’”

Much of the debate was an airing of worries and grievances about the speed with which Illinois was ushering in change. Proponents argued that an exhaustive two year process, with dozens of townhalls across the state, had laid the groundwork for the bill. But its language had just been rolled out in early May, which didn’t give opponents time to pick apart the details.

In a surreal moment, Democratic Representative Anthony DeLuca, of Chicago Heights, south of the city of Chicago, cracked an egg into a frying pan on the House floor. “This is your brain on drugs,” he said, the slogan of the 1980s-era ad campaign to discourage drug use. Other opponents worried about youth use, the ability of law enforcement to crack down on driving under the influence, and the possibility of an increase in mental health problems.

Representative Marty Moylan, a suburban-area Democrat, worked with Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and echoed the group’s argument that cannabis legalization wouldn’t benefit minority communities or black and brown business owners, but would instead usher in a Big Tobacco 2.0. “If this bill passes, a giant big-money industry will commercialize another harmful addictive drug in our state,” he said. “It’s about big business focusing on making a profit.”

Others argued that many of the bill’s aims were admirable but it was moving too fast and, ultimately, those aims would fail due to a lack of vetting. “The bill is just not ready yet,” said Republican Representative Deanna Mazzochi.

But Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth, of Peoria, said the bill marked a turning point for the war on drugs. She pointed to the bill’s $30 million grant program for low-income applicants and that 20% of the licensing-application score, the third-highest category, would be ranked on how the applicant planned to address social equity issues, meaning bringing in diverse ownership or helping those with previous cannabis convictions or otherwise affected by the drug wars succeed in the new industry. Those policies would bring forth the “most socially just, socially equitable adult-use cannabis policy in the country,” she said.

Last-minute changes

The bill’s sponsors made several concessions to bring on GOP lawmakers and shore up support this week, including allowing complete control by local governments to allow cannabis businesses within their borders—or not. Going further than most states, the bill also allows local governments to choose to liberalize cannabis policies, including allowing social consumption lounges.

Proponents and opponents of the bill sparred during a House Judiciary-Criminal Committee hearing late Thursday night as the clock ticked toward the end of the legislative session the next day.

Robert Moore, representing the Illinois National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said other states have also made promises to the black community when seeking to legalize cannabis. “Promises of equity and benefits to the black community have been used to gain support in other states,” he said. “There is no benefit … that has been documented.”

He also said that many people in black communities would continue to have contact with the police over cannabis. “What police action will occur with 31 grams?” he asked.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told the House committee on Thursday that, as a prosecutor, she knows that those with one criminal charge on their record are likely to get another. The expungement provision would be a game-changer, she said, adding that those whose charges wiped clean by the bill’s expungement provision will get a clean slate and will be less likely to commit another crime.

“This is not simply a measure of social justice and equity, it is a public safety issue,” Foxx said. “Once you have a criminal conviction your likelihood of recidivism raises. This is a measure that aims to increase public safety and that’s what this does.”

Foxx said, however, the bill was not a silver bullet. Officials would need to continue to work toward social justice goals. “This is a crisis of inequity … that one bill isn’t going to remediate.”

A rushed process

Of course, the legislature’s last-minute maneuvering had its drawbacks, even for proponents. Cassidy said that a bill correcting technical mistakes, along with other revisions, could be expected next year.

The bill indeed has had a short lifespan. The first draft of the bill was introduced just three weeks ago—at the end of a more than two-year process complete with town halls across the state. The new version of the bill was only finalized and published late Wednesday. Soon after, it was heard by the Senate Executive Committee for a previously unscheduled vote and advanced through the floor of the Senate just hours later.

When it comes to expungement of criminal records, the new version of the bill calls on Governor Pritzker to issue a mass pardon for all those convicted of cannabis-related crimes, as long as the charge also wasn’t brought along with a violent crime. However, changes made mean that only those crimes involving 30 grams or less—the amount of legal cannabis allowed under the bill—would be automatically expunged. For the rest, those convicted would have to petition a court in order for the record to be expunged.

The other major change was to limit permission to grow five cannabis plants at home to those who qualify for the medical program only; home grow for all had been billed as a way for more people, regardless of income, to get access to cannabis. The move addressed law enforcement concerns that those who grow under the much bigger adult-use program—anyone over 21—would be difficult to enforce, Lindsey said, because police have no way of tracking home grown cannabis. Some GOP senators said during the debate on the bill Wednesday that the changes allowed them to endorse the measure.

Jack Campbell, an Illinois sheriff representing the state Sheriff’s Association, said during the House hearing on Thursday that medical home grow could still be easily abused and lead to a tough-to-police black market.

Bill sponsors also changed the bill to give localities total control over whether to allow cannabis businesses. The bill also has a two-year ban for lawmakers or their families to apply for cannabis business licenses.

Americans For Prosperity, the influential, Koch Brothers-backed conservative group, sent a letter to lawmakers late last week that has also been influential with Republicans. The group said it was supportive of the bill—particularly the expungement provisions.

But, citing a bill analysis by Geoffrey Lawrence of the libertarian group Reason Foundation, the Americans For Prosperity said lawmakers should improve its complicated taxing structure, lower the six-figure application fees, and reduce requirements so more small businesses can enter the market, according to the analysis. (Read about the original bill’s provisions in Cannabis Wire’s previous coverage).

Lawrence told Cannabis Wire in an interview before Friday’s vote that he and others were resigned to wait until next year to push for improvements, given the speed and that the end of the legislative session was mere hours away. “It’s disappointing it took so long into the legislative session to get this language,” he said. “It would have been great to have public discourse starting four months ago.”

Lawrence also said, when asked by Cannabis Wire, that the bill’s confidentiality section would likely cause the state headaches. Under the new draft of the bill, cannabis businesses and owners would be publicly listed but their application and license renewals would be kept confidential and not subject to open records laws. (Cannabis Wire previously reported about problematic secrecy provisions).

Asked if Illinois was opening itself up to lawsuits, Lawrence said: “I’d bank on that. Even when all the information is open, whenever you restrict the number of licenses available, people will make an argument they’ve been damaged somehow.” Other states have seen dozens of lawsuits from applications who, after not being awarded a license, have questioned the process by which state regulators awarded licenses, suggesting that the state was arbitrarily rewarding a competitor.   

In the end, the bill’s sponsors made enough changes to get a few key local groups to a “neutral” stance on the bill—namely the Municipal League, by adding dollars for municipalities and increasing local control; and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, by adding strong language that allows employers to retain strict workplace drug policies.

Gordon-Booth said during the debate Friday that Democrats ability to stay focused on the social equity provisions and black and brown communities made it a success. She said Illinois, in that regard, finally had the right priorities in mind compared to other states. For too long, Gordon-Booth argued, African Americans in other states where cannabis has been legalized have been shut out of the industry, and Illinois will change that.

“You can’t do it for us without us,” she said.

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