What Makes Illinois’ Marijuana Legalization Bill So Progressive

The legislation, expected to be signed into law by the governor, takes steps towards rectifying the harms of the drug war.

Ramenda Cyrus


On May 31, the Illi­nois House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed what is per­haps the most pro­gres­sive recre­ation­al mar­i­jua­na usage bill in the Unit­ed States, by a mar­gin of 66 – 47. The bill passed in the Sen­ate on Wednes­day by a mar­gin of 38 – 17. Gov­er­nor J.B. Pritzk­er is expect­ed to sign the bill imme­di­ate­ly, which would make the recre­ation­al use of mar­i­jua­na legal in Illi­nois as soon as Jan­u­ary 2020, and would also make Illi­nois the first state to pass recre­ation­al mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion through a pro­posed bill rather than a bal­lot ini­tia­tive. This is an impor­tant exam­ple of state gov­ern­ment lis­ten­ing to its con­stituents: 60% of Illi­noisans are in favor of the legal­iza­tion of recre­ation­al mar­i­jua­na use.

These measures may help right some of the wrongs done to communities of color by the Nixon-era “War on Drugs.”

The bill allows adults 21 and old­er to pos­sess up to 30 grams of cannabis flower, 5 grams of cannabis con­cen­trate and 500 mil­ligrams of THC-infused prod­ucts. In this regard, the bill is sim­i­lar to those passed in oth­er states. Cal­i­for­nia, for exam­ple, allows for pos­ses­sion of 28.5 grams of cannabis plant mate­r­i­al and 8 grams of con­cen­trate. Neva­da per­mits pos­ses­sion of an ounce of flower and 3.54 grams of con­cen­trate. And Mass­a­chu­setts also allows for pos­ses­sion of an ounce and up to 5 grams of concentrate.

But what sets the Illi­nois bill apart from oth­er states’ bills is its pro­vi­sion to expunge pri­or low­er-lev­el mar­i­jua­na pos­ses­sion, man­u­fac­tur­ing and intent to deliv­er” con­vic­tions — and its inclu­sion of com­mu­ni­ty rein­vest­ment and social­ly equi­table licens­ing prac­tices. These mea­sures may help right some of the wrongs done to com­mu­ni­ties of col­or by the Nixon-era War on Drugs.”

The orig­i­nal ver­sion of the Illi­nois bill includ­ed a pro­vi­sion for auto­mat­ic expunge­ment of mis­de­meanor and Class 4 mar­i­jua­na con­vic­tions. Due to Repub­li­can con­cerns of uncon­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty, how­ev­er, the bill was amend­ed to include pro­ce­dur­al expunge­ment only. As the Chica­go Tri­bune explains it, pro­ce­dur­al expunge­ment is a process by which the state police will iden­ti­fy low­er-lev­el, non-vio­lent con­vic­tions of pos­ses­sion, man­u­fac­tur­ing and intent to deliv­er” and send them to local state’s attor­neys to review. If the state attor­ney has no objec­tions, the cas­es get sent up to the state’s Pris­on­er Review Board, which then makes a rec­om­men­da­tion to the gov­er­nor on whether the indi­vid­ual should be par­doned. The gov­er­nor may then issue a pardon.

Mul­ti­ple oth­er states where recre­ation­al use is legal­ized have intro­duced process­es for expunge­ment, which helps open up job and hous­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for those whose options would oth­er­wise be lim­it­ed due to mar­i­jua­na convictions.

The bill also includes a stip­u­la­tion to ensure that indi­vid­u­als from mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties will receive dis­pen­sary licens­es. The bill reads: Dur­ing the licens­ing process, social equi­ty appli­cants’ will receive 25 points out of the 200 points. Bonus points will be award­ed for sev­er­al cat­e­gories, includ­ing for Illi­nois-based appli­cants and appli­cants with a labor peace agree­ment.” The bill states that a social equi­ty appli­cant is an Illi­nois res­i­dent who has lived for at least five of the 10 pre­ced­ing years in a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed neigh­bor­hood,” mean­ing a neigh­bor­hood where res­i­dents have been affect­ed by high rates of arrests, con­vic­tion and incar­cer­a­tion due to vio­la­tions of the Cannabis Con­trol Act.” Peo­ple whose records are expunged under the act are also con­sid­ered social equi­ty applicants.

The bill also details where the rev­enue from the new mar­ket will be going. Most notably, a full 25% will be trans­ferred to a fund for com­mu­ni­ty reinvestment.

The bill’s pro­gres­sive mea­sures, aimed at sup­port­ing com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, couldn’t come soon enough. The War on Drugs began under Richard Nixon in an attempt to curb the use of harm­ful, addic­tive drugs and to social­ly weak­en both black peo­ple and anti-Viet­nam War pro­tes­tors. John Ehrlich­man, Nixon’s coun­sel and Assis­tant to the Pres­i­dent for Domes­tic Affairs, famous­ly summed it up (report­ed by Dan Baum):

The Nixon cam­paign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two ene­mies: the anti­war left and black peo­ple. … By get­ting the pub­lic to asso­ciate the hip­pies with mar­i­jua­na and blacks with hero­in, and then crim­i­nal­iz­ing both heav­i­ly, we could dis­rupt those com­mu­ni­ties. We could arrest their lead­ers, raid their homes, break up their meet­ings, and vil­i­fy them. … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

As a result of sen­ti­ments like this, mar­i­jua­na got lumped in with drugs such as hero­in under the Con­trolled Sub­stances Act of 1970, which made pre­scrip­tion or dis­tri­b­u­tion of such drugs ille­gal. The Act’s neg­a­tive effects on com­mu­ni­ties of col­or are pal­pa­ble. Accord­ing to the ACLU, black peo­ple are 3.73 times as like­ly than whites to be arrest­ed for mar­i­jua­na.” And accord­ing to Drug​Pol​i​cy​.org, of the near­ly 600,000 peo­ple arrest­ed for pos­ses­sion-only charges in 2017 in the Unit­ed States, almost half (46.9%) were black or Lat­inx peo­ple, even though black and Lat­inx peo­ple make up only 31.5% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, accord­ing to the July 2018 cen­sus. This shows a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of black and Lat­inx peo­ple being arrest­ed for mar­i­jua­na pos­ses­sion, despite the fact that white and black peo­ple use mar­i­jua­na at sim­i­lar rates.

The next step is hold­ing state offi­cials account­able to the promis­es con­tained in the bill, to ensure that racial bias does not creep into the expunge­ment process. The poten­tial effects of the bill have not been com­pre­hen­sive­ly stud­ied, but the sale of recre­ation­al mar­i­jua­na will undoubt­ed­ly open up a source of rev­enue for a state plagued by a deficit, and expunge­ment will open up job oppor­tu­ni­ties for those with pri­or con­vic­tion records.

The Illi­nois bill is not per­fect. Auto­mat­ic expunge­ment would have been far more pro­gres­sive. But it’s still a step in the right direc­tion toward right­ing the neg­a­tive effects that the war on drugs has wrought on com­mu­ni­ties of color.

Ramen­da Cyrus is a sum­mer 2019 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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