Historic Marijuana Bill Signed in Illinois
By Robert McCoppin
A landmark battle in the war on drugs ended Tuesday, and a new approach to address racial inequities began, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker acted to legalize marijuana in Illinois effective Jan. 1, 2020.
Sponsors called the change "historic" as Pritzker signed into law a bill that will allow Illinois residents 21 and over to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis flower, 5 grams of concentrate and 500 milligrams of THC infused in edibles and other products. Out-of-state visitors may have up to half those amounts.
The law provides for selected businesses to be licensed to grow, process, transport and sell the drug. The bill also provides for expungement -- the nullification of lower-level cannabis possession convictions -- and funding for minority neighborhoods hit hardest by prosecution of marijuana possession.
Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis, but the first to authorize commercial sales as approved by lawmakers rather than referendum. Supporters said the change will reverse decades of disproportionate prosecutions of African Americans and Latinos, which have kept people from getting jobs and housing.
"The legalization of adult use cannabis brings an important and overdue change to our state, and it's the right thing to do," he said. "Today, we are giving hundreds of thousands of people the chance at a better life, jobs, housing and better opportunities."
Many steps still have to take place before the law is fully implemented, including licensing and fine-tuning regulations.
The measure passed overwhelmingly last month, with a Democratic majority in the General Assembly, and some support from Republicans. But it came over concerns about the harmful effects of the drug that were raised by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Police also warned of an increase in drug-related driving accidents and fatalities.
The chief sponsors who spent two years crafting and pushing the bill, state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, both Chicago Democrats, maintained that prohibition simply doesn't work. Marijuana use is already common, they said, but regulating and taxing it will provide for more control, public safety, and tax revenue to pay for substance abuse treatment and prevention.
The cannabis program is projected to generate $57 million in taxes and fees in the current fiscal year, and $500 million annually in five years.
The most unusual and far-reaching aspect of the bill is its "social equity" component. It calls for 25% of tax money for grants to fund neighborhood improvement projects in poor minority areas. Proposals are to be chosen by a board led by Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton.
In addition, anyone with a marijuana arrest for under 30 grams would have the case automatically cleared, while the governor will pardon convictions for up to 30 grams. Prosecutors and individuals may petition the courts to expunge convictions for amounts between 30 and 500 grams.
The state will also provide lower licensing fees, low-interest loans and preference in awarding licenses to social equity applicants, defined as those from areas most affected by the war on drugs, or having criminal records eligible for expungement.
"What we are doing here is about reparations," state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Democrat from Peoria, said. "Black and brown people have been put at the very center of this policy."
Kevin Sabet, founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which fights legalization nationwide, said opponents would work to get local governments to ban marijuana businesses within their boundaries.
Sabet warned that other "legal" states have seen increases in drug-related crashes and fatalities, rising emergency room visits and "thriving" illegal markets.
The law gives existing licensed medical cannabis growers and sellers the exclusive right to begin sales to recreational users Jan. 1. Applications for new retail stores will be available starting Oct. 1.
By May 1, 2020, the state may award up to 75 additional licenses for retail stores. By July 1, 2020, the state will award 40 licenses for small craft growers, 40 companies that infuse edibles and topicals with cannabis, and unlimited businesses to transport the products.
By December 2021, the state may award additional licenses following a study of supply and demand.
For all that to happen, many intermediate steps must take place. First, state police must collect records of all pending arrests of up to 30 grams since 2013 for automatic expungement by Jan. 1, 2021, with older arrest records getting expunged later. Then state police must identify all eligible convictions for the state Prisoner Review Board, which will review and recommend action to the governor, for potential pardons.
Individuals and state's attorneys may immediately go to court to petition for expungement of convictions for up to 500 grams, or prosecutors may challenge such requests, but that process can take years.
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police had opposed legalization, and did get a provision removed that would have allowed all residents to grow five plants each at home. Instead, only medical cannabis patients may be approved to grow five plants each at home.
Association President Steve Stelter, chief of Westchester police, said each department will have to figure out how to enforce the new laws. He objected that there is no scientifically accepted blood level to prove driving impairment by THC, the component of cannabis that gets users high. By the time police get a warrant for a blood draw, he said, THC levels have fallen.
Sponsors said that is already the case, but the law provides funding for police to develop policies and roadside tests to combat drugged driving. It also will pay for a public advertising campaign on the dangers of marijuana, which include addiction, psychiatric problems, and impaired attention, learning and memory, in particular for developing brains.
While cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, federal prosecutors have not generally gone after participants in state-run programs. Locally, municipalities cannot ban possession but landlords may under the new law, and businesses will still be able to prohibit use by employees.
The signing took place in the Austin area on Chicago's West Side, on a street dotted with businesses trying to survive among abandoned storefronts, a likely candidate for the law's neighborhood projects.
Esther Franco-Payne, executive director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid, which helps people get their criminal records expunged, said people already line up at the Daley Center to do just that and predicted a surge in applicants.
"We've heard the stories, we've seen the tears (and seen what) people go through because of their criminal backgrounds," she said. "This will allow people to move past those barriers."
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