Illinois Recreational Marijuana Legalization Bill Signed Into Law

CHICAGO — Calling it an “important and overdue change,” Gov. JB Pritkzer signed a bill Tuesday legalizing recreational marijuana use statewide at the start of next year. The bill makes Illinois the 11th state in the nation to permit the use of cannabis and marks the first time the substance has been legalized by state lawmakers rather than through a popular referendum.

“In the past, our state has spent more money per capita on cannabis possession enforcement than almost every other state,” Pritzker said. “Illinoisans have had enough. They know that what we’re doing isn’t working. They know that criminalization offers nothing but pain, disruption and injustice.”

Pritzker said the bill was the “most equity-centric” marijuana legalization bill in the country. The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, House Bill 1438, allocates a quarter of tax revenue from cannabis to a grant program aimed at helping areas that have suffered the most from marijuana prohibition, creates a “social equity applicant” status for licensing, establishes a low-interest loan process for those entering the cannabis industry and clears the way for the expungement of the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of people.

“We did something that no other state in the nation has been able to do. Today, Illinois is leading the way in demonstrating everything that can be accomplished when we set aside our comfort with the status quo and instead govern with the belief that our best days are ahead,” the governor said at a signing ceremony with the bill’s sponsors and supporters in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. “As the first state in the nation to fully legalize adult-use cannabis through the legislative process Illinois exemplifies the best of democracy — a bipartisan and deep commitment to better the lives of all of our people.”

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, as Congress has designated it a Schedule 1 drug with no medical use, along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD. In a departure from his predecessor, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said during confirmation hearings the Department of Justice would not target marijuana businesses that were following the law of the states where they operate. Every state on the West Coast, along with Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada and Vermont, has legalized the possession of marijuana for recreational use.

The bill allows for Illinois residents age 21 and up to buy and possess up to 30 grams of marijuana or equivalent amounts of edibles with 500 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, or 5 grams of cannabis concentrate. Non-residents will be allowed half as much.

In Illinois, growing cannabis will remain illegal for those without a state-issued cultivation license or medical marijuana card. Participants in the state’s medical cannabis program will be allowed to grow up to five plants at home under certain conditions. Up to five plants for non-patients will become a violation of civil rather than criminal law, while unlicensed cultivation of six or more plants will remain a felony.

State Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and lead sponsor on the bill, said lawmakers had spent years seeking community input and working with hundreds of stakeholders to craft the bill. She said the state’s approach to legalization relied on a three fundamental elements — expungement of cannabis convictions, diversity in the cannabis industry and investment in places harmed by the war on drugs.

“I’m feeling so pleased that we are finally ending a very failed policy of prohibition that’s been in place for decades,” Steans said. Government regulation and taxation of marijuana will improve safety, and the legalization law will “finally start to repair the damage that’s been done by the war on drugs,” she added.

“We have taken a lot of measures here to actually ensure that we do put in place an industry that is reflective of the state of Illinois and tools to help make sure we get there. I think we’re going to be the model legislation setting the gold standard for how this needs to be done in the future,” Steans said. “We’re already seeing us getting picked up by other states in looking at how are we actually going to get it passed in our states. I am very delighted to see that, I think, come year two, three from now, we’re going to see a very different cannabis industry in the state of Illinois.”

Rep. Kelly Cassidy, of Chicago, worked for more than two years with Steans and fellow Democratic co-sponsors, Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, of Peoria, and Sen. Toi Hutchinson, of Chicago — a group she described as the “Marijuana Moms.” She credited the involvement of Pritzker and his staff with making the difference in getting the bill passed.

“This bill is not perfect. It’s not the end of the conversation. We’ve often noted that every year there are several alcohol-related bills debated in our chamber. This continues,” Cassidy said. “But today, we’re hitting the ‘reset’ button on the war on drugs. Today we begin the process of undoing the war on drugs. It’s not a one-stop shop here.”

Gordon-Booth said cannabis legalization in the United States had previously meant that rich white men would get richer and black people would get arrested, incarcerated and effectively sentenced to second-class citizenship due to criminal records.

“What we are doing here is about reparations. This is about repairing harm. Harm that’s been done to communities for the last 40 years as part of the failed war on drugs,” Gordon-Booth said. “And after 40 years of treating entire communities like criminals, here comes this multi-billion-dollar industry, and guess what? Black and brown people have been put very at the center of this policy, in a way that no other state in the country has ever done this before.”

According to the governor’s office, about 700,000 criminal records are eligible for expungement under the act. Local law enforcement and state police are set to automatically expunge arrests not leading to a conviction for possession-related crimes of up to 30 grams, while the governor will grant pardons to expunge those convicted of possession with intent to deliver up to 30 grams.

Expunging convictions for possession of 30 to 500 grams of cannabis requires a motion to a judge by a defendant or a prosecutor. Any cannabis offense connected to a violent crime is ineligible for automatic expungement, but the person charged or a state’s attorney can still file a motion asking for the conviction to be vacated.

Hutchinson said she was proud to have shaped a policy that will change the direction of the state for generations to come, describing it as a rare moment in the career of any legislator. The south suburban state senator said she pushed for the bill despite opposition from some members of the black community because she knew it was the right thing to do and the status quo was unacceptable.

“There’s no way to normalize this without starting somewhere, and we’re starting in a place that is the biggest bite at this that any state has ever ever seen. So if we want to get to the point where we see the equity we are fighting for, if want to get to the point where you see the diversity in the industry that we’re fighting for, if you want to see people be able to rebuild their lives and have fresh starts,” Hutchinson said. “You have to start someplace. This was a hell of start. And if you have a public health concern, there’s a reason we’re here. If you have a criminal justice concern, there’s a reason why we’re here. And there’s a reason why it was no longer possible for us to look at where we stand right now and think that this system was good for anybody, anywhere, at any time, unless it was working for you.”

In response to the signing, Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action, issued a statement calling legalization a “failed policy.” The Virginia-based group led a coalition of Illinois groups who fought against legalization, including the Illinois Chiefs of Police Association, the Illinois Drug Enforcement Officers Association, the Midwest Truckers Association and the Catholic Conference of Illinois. Sabet warned other states with legal cannabis had seen increases in “drugged driving crashes and fatalities, mental health issues, exploding use, rising emergency room visits, increased insurance premiums, corruption and thriving black markets.”

“With the stroke of his pen, Governor Pritzker has signed a check to his family — who are massively invested in Big Pot and laughing their way to their offshore tax shelters — and put the interests of Big Marijuana ahead of the health and safety of Illinois residents,” Sabet said.

Lawmakers in other states did not pass bills to legalize cannabis this year, but Illinois “chose to bend to the demands of this addiction-for-profit industry,” he continued.

“Influential community leaders such as the NAACP, Illinois Chiefs of Police Association, the Catholic Conference of Illinois, and Democratic State Representative Marty Moylan joined in opposition to this reckless bill while many others were forced to stayed silent due to fears they would lose their state funding if they publicly opposed the governor,” Sabet said. “Moving forward, we will work to ensure the signing of this bill does not silence their voices.”

Sabet said his group would work with local governments to help them to ban cannabis related businesses in their community and was “holding conversations with federal law enforcement officials and consulting with legal teams to determine all possible next steps to mitigate the laundry list of harms the governor and pro-marijuana lawmakers have now unleashed upon their state.”

State tax revenue from the industry is projected to rise from over $140.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to $375.5 million in fiscal year 2024, according to the governor’s office.

Under the new law, 35 percent goes to the state’s general fund, 25 percent goes to support the reinvestment grant program, 20 percent goes to the Department of Human Services Community Services Fund for substance abuse prevention and mental health concerns, 10 percent is reserved to pay the state’s backlog of unpaid bills through the Budget Stabilization Fund, 8 percent goes toward local law enforcement through the Local Government Distributive Fund and 2 percent supports public education and study of the public health impact of legalization.

Under the bill signed into law by Pritzker, smoking in public will remain forbidden unless expressly permitted by property owners. Individual municipalities will remain able to restrict cannabis-related businesses from opening up shop within their boundaries, and voters of individual precincts in Chicago will be able to create “restricted cannabis zones” that also forbid medical patients from growing plants at home.

The law also does not permit the delivery of marijuana to consumers or the transfer or gifting of marijuana by individuals. Technically, it will be illegal under the bill to pass a “joint,” a “doobie” or a “blunt.”

The law takes effect immediately for regulatory and licensing purposes, but the sale and possession of cannabis will not become legal until Jan. 1, 2020.

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