Pubdate: Wed, 26 Jun 2019
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2019 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: 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

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.

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

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

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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