Illinois Set To Become 11th State To Legalize Marijuana
Further progress for advocates of marijuana legalization from the Land of Lincoln.
Late last week, the Illinois legislature gave final approval to a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in the Land of Lincoln, making the state the 11th in the country to make marijuana legal for any purpose:
Ilinois is one signature away from joining the 10 other states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana.
With a bipartisan vote of 66-47, the House approved a bill Friday that had been passed by the Senate Wednesday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who campaigned for office on a promise to legalize pot, almost immediately issued a statement in which he promised to sign a bill that he said offers “the most equity-centric approach in the nation.”
“This will have a transformational impact on our state, creating opportunity in the communities that need it most and giving so many a second chance,” Pritzker said in his statement.
With the governor’s signature, Illinois would become the first state to create a commercial recreational marijuana industry through the legislature rather than by voter initiative.
Supporters hailed the measure as an acknowledgement that the prohibition of marijuana has failed, and they argued that the bill will begin to address decades of racial disparities in the prosecution of drug crimes.
“Prohibition hasn’t built communities. In fact, it has destroyed them,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, who worked with Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans for more than two years to craft the bill. “It is time to hit the reset button on the war on drugs.”
The bill takes effect Jan. 1 and would allow residents age 21 and older to legally possess 30 grams of cannabis, 5 grams of cannabis concentrate or 500 milligrams of THC contained in a cannabis-infused product. Nonresidents could possess 15 grams of cannabis.
It would also create a licensed cultivation and dispensary system while directing Pritzker to pardon people with past convictions for low-level pot possession.
Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Peoria Democrat, said the discussion about the bill’s expungement provisions was the first time in her decade as a lawmaker that minority communities were at the center of a major policy decision.
Wiping people’s criminal records clean will open up new educational and career opportunities that will help lift people out of poverty, Gordon-Booth said.
“If you are wearing the scarlet letter of a conviction, you are now calcified in poverty because of a mistake,” she said. “Not even a mistake, a choice.”
Legalizing marijuana is expected to generate $57 million in general revenue in the coming budget year and $30 million for a cannabis business development fund. That’s far less than the $170 million Pritzker projected in his spending plan, but budget negotiators have said they aren’t counting on any of that revenue.
After paying for regulatory expenses and costs related to the expungement process, marijuana revenue would be divided among a number of areas. The largest share, 35%, would go into the state’s general fund; 25% would go to community grants; 20% to mental health and substance abuse programs; 10% to pay down the state’s backlog of unpaid bills; 8% to support law enforcement; and 2% for public education.
All of this comes in the face of recent developments that show the extent to which marijuana legalization is becoming more and more of a mainstream position across the political and demographic spectrum. Most recently, this was shown in polls from Gallup, Pew Research Center, and Quinnipiac which all showed support for legalization continues to grow. The Gallup poll was perhaps the most remarkable of the three in that it showed support for legalization across all of the major demographic groups, including political affiliation. In that poll, the strongest support was unsurprisingly from Democrats (75% favor legalization) and Independents (71% support legalization) but even self-identified Republicans, which had been among the final demographic groups where majority support did not exist, showing 54% of that group supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Additionally, support for legalization among Americans 55 and older, another group that has been late to the legalization movement, was up to 59%.
These polls were the latest milestone in a trend that began at the beginning of the decade, has continued unimpeded for the past seven years, and which shows no signs of stopping or reversing itself any time soon. In 2011, for example, polling showed that support legalization had reached the 50% level, while even larger numbers supported legalization for medical purposes or decriminalization. By 2013, the number of Americans supporting legalization had passed the 50% mark. That mark reached 55% in 2014 and 58% in 2015. By this time last year, polling showed that support for legalization had reached 64% and a poll taken five months ago showed support at 63%. So, we’ve basically reached the point where two-thirds of the American public supports complete legalization and, according to the most recent polling, upwards of 90% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana at least for medical purposes.
As these poll numbers have increased, the movement toward liberalization of marijuana laws and outright legalization has moved steadily forward. It began to gain steam, of course, in 2010 when Colorado and Washington both passed citizen referenda legalizing cannabis. Four years later similar measures passed in Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. Delaware joined the trend in 2015 when the Governor signed a bill to decriminalize marijuana, make possession of cannabis a civil penalty with no more than a $100 fine. In 2016, voters in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine approved referenda legalizing marijuana while voters in a number of other states approved legalization for medicinal purposes. ‘
2018 was, if anything, one of the best years for the legalization movement so far. January of that year, for example, was arguably the biggest month ever for the movement given the fact that the most populated state in the nation, California, officially legalized marijuana based on the aforementioned 2016 referendum. Additionally, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislature instead of a voter referendum. Finally, on Election Day 2018, voters in Michigan approved legalization for recreational use and voters in Utah approved legalization for medical purposes. Unfortunately, though, a measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use failed in North Dakota.
There have also been efforts to legalize marijuana in New York and New Jersey, although both efforts have been bogged down due mainly to infighting among Democratic legislators in both states. In the Garden State specifically, this likely means that voters will be voting on a legalization referendum on Election Day in 2020. New Yorkers, meanwhile, will have to wait for next year’s legislative session to revive the push for legalization. On the whole, though, the legalization movement continues to advance, as this news out of Illinois shows us.
There has also been some progress on the Federal level. As I noted back in March, legalization has become a consensus issue among the candidates for the Democratic nomination. Additionally, Congress could take legislative action on this issue with legislation directing that marijuana be removed from the list of Schedule I drugs, a list that also includes “hard” drugs like LSD and heroin. Unfortunately, Congressional action on legalization is unlikely at this point, at least in the Republican-controlled Senate.
This isn’t the only area in which Federal action can have an impact, though. There is also the issue of Justice Department policy regarding enforcement of the law in states where marijuana has been legalized. Under the Obama Administration, the position adopted by the Justice Department after states began legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use was that Federal authorities would not aggressively enforce Federal law in those states other than to address issues involving interstate drug trafficking. After President Trump was elected, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed those guidelines and essentially left it to individual United States Attorneys to decide how to prioritize such cases. While there has been no indication of a Federal crackdown in the states where legalization has taken place, this puts residents in jeopardy of being prosecuted by Federal authorities even though they are engaging in activity that is entirely legal under state law.
Presumably, a future Democratic President would return to the Obama era policy and, potentially, they could follow through on the calls made by many experts to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule One drugs. Until that happens, though, millions of Americans remain under threat of Federal prosecution even though they are obeying the laws of the state they live in.