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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.

BY Ramenda Cyrus

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

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.

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 DrugPolicy.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.


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

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