Illinois marijuana bill should 'inspire Midwestern states' to ditch prohibition for sensible regulation: Expert

The bill goes beyond simply legalizing marijuana and includes provisions for criminal justice reform and social equity


                            Illinois marijuana bill should 'inspire Midwestern states' to ditch prohibition for sensible regulation: Expert

Illinois' Senate voted 38-17 in favor of a bill that would legalize the purchase and possession of recreational marijuana. The bill's fate is now in the hands of the Democratic-majority House.

It's unlikely that the bill will face hiccups in the House which indicated on social media that it would take action quickly, with the General Assembly scheduled to adjourn on Friday, May 31.

In the scenario it passes the House as well, and it should, Illinois' Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker — who is a staunch proponent for the legalization of marijuana — has indicated that he will sign it into law.

The bill will allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess 30 grams of cannabis, five grams of cannabis concentrate, and cannabis-infused products containing no more than 500 milligrams of THC. It will also allow for nonresidents to purchase half of each of those amounts.

MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) spoke to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the country's largest organization working towards marijuana policy reform and who played a significant role in drafting and advocating for the bill, in connection with the bill's passing and its impacts.

Karen O' Keefe, who is the Director of State Policies at the MPP, told MEAWW that this was the first time a state legislature had enacted a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill and that it would inspire the other conservative-leaning midwestern states into passing similar legislation.

Illinois is set to become the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana (Source: Getty Images)

"Illinois’ law passing will breathe new life into state legislative efforts by showing that even lawmakers from the heartland recognize that sensible regulation, social equity, and criminal justice reform — not prohibition — are the best approach to cannabis policy," she said.

"It sets a new bar in terms of justice and social equity — including with its provisions to ensure diversity and equity in the industry, to reinvest in communities, and to expunge cannabis records — which derail dreams," she added.

Indeed, if it comes into effect, it would pardon individuals with convictions for amounts of cannabis under 30 grams and would enable state attorneys or individuals to petition courts to vacate convictions for cases with 500 grams of possession. The MPP estimates 750,000 cannabis-related cases will be eligible for expungement under this measure.

The bill will also introduce taxes for cannabis products and gives grants and financial assistance to communities "most adversely impacted by the enforcement of cannabis-related laws." A provision also allows for the providing of loans to start cannabis businesses.

Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) had stressed as such during the full floor debate before its passing, saying, "While the usage of cannabis has been the same across all racial groups, the actual incarceration charges have been shown to be seven times more likely for people of color than Caucasians. This bill is going to set the model, I believe, the gold standard, for how to approach social equity issues related to cannabis legalization."

Lee Molly, a co-founding member of the International Church of Cannabis based in Denver that has long advocated for recreational use across the country, echoed the opinion to MEAWW. 

The bill allows for home cultivation, but restricts it to qualified medical-marijuana patients (Source: Getty Images)

"Tying the bill to fairness and criminal justice is an interesting idea," he said. "Having the criminal records of those who had previous low-level cannabis convictions expunged should allow for those people to have a legitimate future in the cannabis industry, and seems to point to a fairer way of dealing with the issue of past convictions."

One of the more controversial aspects of the bill was the provision that allowed for home cultivation, with opponents claiming this would fuel the black market sale of the drug, but O'Keefe disagreed.

"The bill allows only registered patients to cultivate cannabis at home, just as about half of other medical cannabis states do," she explained. "This is important to many patients who have long-term, chronic illnesses, and hefty medical bills. For some patients, dispensary prices are simply out of reach, and this allows safe, affordable access to cannabis."

"Americans can brew their own beer and grow their own tomatoes; they should also be able to securely and discreetly grow a handful of cannabis plants," she added, mentioning that MPP supports allowing adults to grow their own cannabis, allowing home delivery, and allowing cannabis cafes.

The measure to limit homegrown pot to qualified medical-marijuana patients was done to appease law enforcement, Steans confirmed, noting that many lawmakers still maintained reservations about product safety in such cases.

Molly did not understand the fuss. "There is very little downside to allowing people to grow a limited number of plants at home," he told MEAWW. "There is a good reason that the plant is nicknamed weed — i.e. it grows like weeds. As long as people are not using dangerous chemicals on their plants, which most home growers are not doing, there shouldn’t be an issue in terms of the experience required for home cultivation."

If passed, recreational marijuana would be legalized in Illinois effective on January 1, 2020, and would make the state just the 11th in the country to do so.

Asked what were the primary hurdles to legalizing recreational use across the rest of the country was, O'Keefe replied, "Funding, complacency, inertia, and the fact that legislators are far behind the public on marijuana policy reform."

"Only 24 states have a voter initiative process, meaning in most states the legislature is the only road to reform. Unfortunately, many supporters of legalization seem not to realize that — despite 66% public support for legalization — marijuana isn’t going to legalize itself," she explained, adding that it would take a "concerted education campaign to pass through state legislatures and a large amount of funding or initiatives."

She did, however, concede that Illinois' bill represented "enormous progress" and that it "breaks new ground on equity," but said there was still "years of work to improve the law over time."