By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Supporters both in and outside the General Assembly said Thursday that the push to legalize adult recreational marijuana in Illinois has less to do with marijuana and more to do with social justice and equity.
“For us, this conversation has never been about legalizing weed, but rather ensuring that we have a fair and equitable economy with robust provisions to repair the harm caused by the war on drugs,” said Katelyn Johnson, of the Chicago-based group People United for Racial Equity, or PURE.
“We want to make sure that the new pieces of legislation do not produce any new lines of criminalization, racial red-lining from the industry or monopolies for institutions that have already made billions while people who work in the informal cannabis industry were incarcerated for the same business activity,” she added.
Johnson, along with other advocates and legislative leaders behind the legalization push, spoke during a Statehouse news conference Thursday, the morning after the Senate voted 38-17 to pass the bill and send it to the House, which is expected to vote on the bill Friday.
If approved, Illinois would become the 10th state in the nation, plus the District of Columbia, to legalize marijuana, but it would be the first to enact comprehensive legislation that includes personal use and possession, cultivation and sales, according to the California-based Marijuana Policy Institute.
Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, a chief co-sponsor in the House, said the decision to pursue a legislative plan was intentional.
“What we’re seeing is a bunch of legislatures that have decided, ‘We don’t want to do the hard work of legislating what we think or know is right. We’re just going to craft a paragraph, we’re going to put it on the ballot and send it to the people and what happens, happens.’ That’s not what we did,” she said. “We took a painstaking process and worked hours for weeks, months and even years.”
The result was a 610-page bill that not only legalizes adult recreational marijuana but establishes strict guidelines to control all aspects of the industry, sets out licensing fees and excise taxes on the sale of marijuana, and directs where the revenues from the new industry will go.
Specifically, the bill directs 25 percent of the revenue into a grant program to fund community development projects in low-income and high-minority neighborhoods, with additional amounts earmarked for substance abuse prevention and mental health, education and safety programs, and law enforcement.
Other provisions provide a process by which people with criminal records for minor marijuana-related offenses can have those records expunged. And it includes a low-interest loan program to help people from communities “disproportionately impacted” by the war on drugs to establish their own marijuana businesses.
“This has the possibility of being transformational in ways that most legislators hardly ever get a chance to see,” said Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, one of the lead Senate co-sponsors. “And I say that because we know at the outset after 80 years of prohibition, the communities that have been targeted the most and over-policed the most and weathered the worst of the impacts of the war on drugs, the failed war on drugs, have been black and brown communities across this state, and I would also say around the world.”
The proposal is still drawing criticism from some circles who argue that it could have negative public health consequences, including higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness.
Supporters, however, counter that it would be better to have a controlled, regulated market where marijuana products are packaged and labeled to disclose all of their ingredients rather than an illegal market that has no such controls.
“We know that our children have easy access to products that are laced with God-knows-what by neighborhood folks who ain’t asking your kids for an ID,” Hutchinson said.
A House committee took up the Senate-passed bill late Thursday night and voted 13-6, largely along party lines, to advance it to the full House for a final vote Friday.
At that hearing, one of the people speaking in favor of legalization was Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx who said she is already preparing to set up a program for the systematic expungement of marijuana-related criminal records there.