As the sun set on Illinois Thursday, the state’s House Judiciary-Criminal Committee began discussing House Bill 1438, a bill to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana. The discussion lasted three hours before finally coming to a vote at 11:20 p.m., passing with a 13-6 margin. The after-hours deliberation was necessary to get the bill to the House floor Friday, the final day of the spring legislative session, and Illinois best chance at legalizing recreational marijuana by 2020.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who promised on the campaign trail to make Illinois the 11th state to legalize cannabis use and sales, is ready to sign HB 1438. But in order to win support in the Legislature, lawmakers had to water-down certain key provisions related to equity and criminal justice. And that means the fate of the bill before a full Illinois House vote is all but certain, as lawmakers confront concerns that this version doesn’t go far enough for those most impacted by Illinois’ brutal drug war.
Illinois House Lawmakers Are About to Vote to End Marijuana Prohibition
The Illinois Senate has already voted to approve HB 1438, and passage through the House is the final step before it reaches Gov. Pritzker’s desk. The bill, if signed into law, would go into effect January 1, 2020 and establish broad possession and use limits as well as regulations for a retail industry.
The bill sets up different possession limits for Illinois residents and visitors. Residents would be able to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis buds, 5 grams of concentrate, or 500 milligrams of THC in cannabis-infused edibles, beverages, topicals, and other products. Possession limits are about half of those amounts for non-residents. The bill had included provisions for private home cultivation, but those were changed to allow home grow only for medical marijuana patients.
HB 1438 would also establish a taxation and regulatory framework for a commercial cannabis industry similar to those in other adult-use states. Budgetary estimations project Illinois will generate $170 million in license fees and $350 to $700 million in fees and taxes once the industry gets established.
A major component of Illinois’ plan to legalize marijuana are equity and criminal justice reforms residents and progressive lawmakers have been demanding for years. “Fundamentally, prohibition hasn’t worked,” state Rep. Kelley Cassidy (D–Chicago) told the House Judiciary-Criminal Committee Thursday. “It’s really that simple.”
Watered-Down Equity Provisions Win Republican Support
As elsewhere in the country, cannabis prohibition has fueled mass incarceration and created massive racial disparities across the entire criminal legal spectrum. But addressing the ongoing and generational damage of drug policy on historically disenfranchised groups has so far proven to be anything but simple.
HB 1438 attempts to tackle this huge issue through a number of provisions relating to industry equity and criminal justice reform. The bill would provide a path for those with low-level marijuana possession convictions to have their records expunged. It also sets up a process for the governor to actually pardon people convicted of misdemeanor possession, a step that goes beyond expungement processes in many other states.
HB 1438 would also seek to promote minority participation and ownership in the cannabis industry through loans and other incentives. Illinois would also award business grants to assist low-income communities most affected by the war on drugs. HB 1438 co-sponsor Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth called it the most aggressive approach in the nation toward fostering social equality for black and Hispanic people trapped in poverty due to cannabis convictions.
But to win support in the Illinois House, especially from Republicans, lawmakers had to water down some of those equity provisions. The original vision of a simple, almost automatic expungement process was replaced by a convoluted pathway involving a number of state agencies and requiring individuals to obtain legal representation for expungement proceedings. The high cost of an attorney could mean many of the people most in need of expungement won’t be able to afford to initiate the process.
Illinois Legalization Opponents Rehashed Usual Talking Points
High-level opposition to legalization from Republican law makers and Illinois State Police also prompted the bill’s authors to beef up “zero-tolerance” workplace policies and appropriations for a task force to establish and enforce marijuana DUI laws.
Those changes ultimately won support from a handful of Republican state senators and a Republican co-sponsor in the House. But the response to the pushback has raised concerns among other lawmakers. As a result, Friday’s House vote to legalize recreational marijuana could be much closer than Thursday’s 13-6 committee vote might suggest.