Illinois approves legal weed, expunging criminal records for pot crimes

By Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY

Illinois on Tuesday became the 11th state to legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana for adults, a major victory for cannabis advocates who incorporated social justice initiatives into the measure.

With Gov. JB Pritzker's signature, the new law is the first of its kind passed by a state legislature and signed by a governor, and capped off a legislative year in which legalization efforts sputtered in New York and New Jersey despite heavy pressure from proponents. With more than 12 million residents, Illinois is now the second-most populous state to permit recreational cannabis, behind California. Regulators will spend the next few months developing a system for taxing and testing cannabis, and will launch sales Jan. 1. 

“This is a major milestone for the movement to end marijuana prohibition in the United States. It is the clearest sign yet that lawmakers are catching up with the people on this issue,” said Mason Tvert, who helped create Colorado’s first-in-the-nation cannabis system in 2014. “A strong and steadily growing majority of Americans support legalization, and observers have wondered when it would start translating into major victories in state legislatures. Illinois just answered that question."

Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, but federal prosecutors have since 2014 generally ignored marijuana sales in 10 states that had already legalized personal use: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Nevada, Vermont and Washington, along with the District of Columbia.

In all of those states but Vermont, voters themselves directly approved legalization. And Vermont's legislatively-approved measure permits only personal growing and use, not sales.

The new Illinois law lets resident adults buy and possess up 30 grams of cannabis "flower," along with marijuana-infused foods known as edibles, and small amounts of highly concentrated extracts. Non-residents could buy half the amount.

The law also establishes a system for taxing and regulating marijuana, and consumers would pay up to 34.75% tax on their purchases, depending on potency. Regulators would give preference points to members of minority groups seeking to get business licenses, and state-certified labs would test products for potency and contaminants, a growing concern among users. Backers say the measure will create jobs in communities around the state, an argument made by Canadian officials when they legalized marijuana nationally last year.

“Today we are giving hundreds of thousands of people the chance at a better life – jobs, housing and real opportunity,” Ptizker said Tuesday.

Money raised by the new taxes would first be dedicated to expunging an estimated 770,000 minor cannabis-related cases. Expungement has long been a goal of marijuana-legalization advocates, who argue the federal government's so-called War on Drugs disproportionately targeted minorities. Other states have similar provisions, usually added after the fact, but Illinois' law is the first to contain such a sweeping expungement provision from the start. Any tax money left over after would be used to support drug-treatment and enforcement programs, improve mental-health counseling access and bolster the state's general fund.

Social justice has become a key component of legalization efforts, but lawmakers in both New York and New Jersey got bogged down in exactly how their programs would work, and ultimately failed to reach consensus on how to proceed.

Kris Krane, a member of the marijuana trade group National Cannabis Industry Association, said Illinois' move would likely pave the way for more legislative legalization.

"The very narrow defeats in New York and New Jersey show just how difficult this process is, even when you seemingly have a legislative consensus for legalization," said Kane, who is also the president of cannabis company 4Front Ventures. "Unfortunately, legislators getting caught up in the minutiae of how to legalize ultimately results in more arrests and prosecutions in those states."

Sam Dorf, chief growth officer of multi-state marijuana company Verano Holdings, said he thinks the Illinois measure provides a framework for other state legislatures, especially when it comes to controlling growth and limiting oversupply, which can be diverted to the black market.

"We believe this legislation sets up a strong, well-regulated program that will be successful and serve as a model for New York, New Jersey and other states that are considering legalization," he said.

Tvert, who now works for Denver-based cannabis-industry firm VS Strategies, said Ohio, North Dakota and Minnesota could be among the next states to pursue legalization, especially since Illinois' Legislature took the plunge into sales:  "This should serve as a reminder that support for cannabis legalization is not confined to the coasts. Illinois is the second state in the Midwest to end marijuana prohibition and efforts appear to be picking up steam in the region."


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