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Why Illinois' Marijuana Legalization Law Is Different From All Others

It's the first state where the legislature -- not voters -- legalized cannabis sales. But that's not all that makes it unique.

A male customer smelling marijuana at a pot shop with a female worker.
(AP/Don Ryan)
Last Updated June 25, 2019 at 2:10 p.m. ET



  • Illinois is the first state to legalize marijuana sales through the legislative process and the 11th to allow recreational use.
  • The new law will provide financial aid to minorities in the marijuana industry.
  • The large majority of marijuana business owners is white.
  • The legislation could result in expungements for more than 750,000 people.
The legalization of marijuana has ushered in a booming industry now worth more than $10 billion and employing a quarter-million people in the U.S. For racial minorities, however, the world of legal weed presents hurdles.

Though marijuana-related arrests have dropped notably overall, black people are still arrested at disproportionately high rates. In Washington, D.C., for example, blacks were arrested for possession at a rate of 8 per 100,000 people in 2016, compared to whites arrested at a rate of 2 per 100,000, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

When it comes to marijuana businesses, minorities are underrepresented -- 81 percent of owners and founders are white, according to 2017 data from Marijuana Business Daily.

Illinois is aiming to tackle these inequalities. 

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill on Tuesday that makes Illinois the first state to legalize marijuana sales through the legislative process and the 11th state to allow recreational use of the drug. (Vermont’s legislature legalized recreational cannabis in 2018 but stopped short of approving its sale.) In contrast to their predecessors in other states, Illinois lawmakers created one of the most far-reaching legalization bills in the country. Unlike other states' legalization laws, Illinois' legislation explicitly seeks to make it easier for people of color to benefit from the booming marijuana industry.

“We are taking a major step forward to legalize adult use [of] cannabis and to celebrate the fact that Illinois is going to have the most equity-centric law in the nation,” Pritzker said during a press conference in May. “For the many individuals and families whose lives have been changed -- indeed hurt -- because the nation’s war on drugs discriminated against people of color, this day belongs to you."


What's in the Illinois Marijuana Law?

Under the new law, the state will provide financial assistance to minorities interested in the marijuana industry. Through the Cannabis Business Development Fund, Illinois will help lower licensing fees for and provide low-interest business loans to minority entrepreneurs. The bill allocates $12 million to the fund as well as a portion of the fees charged for marijuana licenses. 

“A person pursuing one of these businesses cannot get a traditional bank loan,” says Edie Moore, executive director of the Chicago branch of NORML, a marijuana legalization advocacy group that worked with Illinois lawmakers on the legislation. “If you can’t get a business loan or you don’t have a rich uncle or an inheritance, then you are just locked out.”

In addition to financial support, the law will establish marijuana job training programs at community colleges. Courses will cover a range of topics -- from growing cannabis plants to establishing business best practices. Up to eight schools will roll out these programs by September 2020, five of which must have “a student population that is more than 50 percent low-income.”

Other jurisdictions around the country, including Denver, Los Angeles and Massachusetts, are establishing social equity programs to support minority-operated marijuana businesses. Some have run into challenges. Unlike Illinois, these efforts have taken place after the states legalized recreational use. 

Amid this equity push, there's also a growing movement to expunge criminal records for low-level marijuana offenses. California, Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire and Oregon, among other states, have made it easier for past offenders to have their sentences reduced or their records cleared. Illinois’ new law will follow this trend and could result in expungements for more than 750,000 people. 

Furthermore, 25 percent of the marijuana sales tax revenue and other fees will be used to create a Restore, Reinvest and Renew program that will award grants to help revitalize and address violence in communities affected by the war on drugs.

With the addition of Illinois, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use -- mostly through ballot measures. Most recently, Michigan voters approved a legalization initiative last year.

Legalization ballot measures are brewing for 2019 or 2020 in Arizona, Florida and Ohio. New York and New Jersey lawmakers had appeared likely to legalize recreational marijuana this year, but intraparty fighting among Democrats halted the conversation in both states. Ralph Weisheit, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University, says many lawmakers may support the goal of legalizing marijuana, but when it comes to details -- such as home cultivation or criminal justice issues -- disagreements can boil over.

But, says Weisheit, lawmakers in other states might be able to use Illinois’ law as a roadmap.

“The basic structure of Illinois’ bill is something that’s been gestating for a long time. It’s not an impulsive or rash thing,” says Weisheit. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in New York or New Jersey, but I expect at some point [the legislation] will come back.”

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