Illinois poised to enact historic recreational marijuana bill that could clear convictions for 770,000

PHOTO: A marijuana plant grows in the flowering room at a medical cannabis cultivation facility in Delavan, Wisc., Dec. 12, 2017.PlayChicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
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The governor of Illinois is poised to sign a bill legalizing the recreational use of marijuana there -- making it the first state to do so through its legislature and the 11th overall to legalize pot.

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The bill -- which permits marijuana possession and may clear the way for hundreds of thousands of criminal cases to be purged -- was sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's desk Friday after the state House of Representatives approved it with a 66-47 vote, the first time a state legislature in the United States has taken such action.

Ten previous states approved recreational use of marijuana through ballot initiatives.

PHOTO: Illinois lawmakers celebrate after Illinois House approved a bill to legalize recreational marijuana at the State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., on May 31, 2019. Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
Illinois lawmakers celebrate after Illinois House approved a bill to legalize recreational marijuana at the State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., on May 31, 2019.

Pritzker, a Democrat billionaire businessman who was elected governor in November 2018, has said he plans to sign the bill, which he estimates will garner the state $170 million in the first year alone. But it remained unclear Monday when he will put his signature on the legislation.

“The state of Illinois just made history, legalizing adult-use cannabis with the most equity-centric approach in the nation,” Pritzker, who ran on a pledge to legalize cannabis, wrote on his Facebook page. “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."

An equity-centric approach is designed to mitigate the effects that criminal laws have had on minorities and level the playing field for getting into the industry.

The legislation, House Bill 1438, will also allow residents of Illinois convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana to petition to have their records expunged if the offense was not associated with a violent crime. Some 770,000 Illinois residents could qualify to get their records cleared of low-level marijuana crimes, according to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.

Supporters of the bill say the laws now on the books have disproportionately affected minority communities.

“Decades of prohibition hasn’t stopped use, prohibition hasn’t made us safer. Prohibition hasn’t built communities – in fact, it has destroyed them. Prohibition hasn’t created jobs, in fact, it has prevented people from finding work," state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, who helped craft the bill, said in a statement. "Ending prohibition will allow us to bring this out of the shadows. Impose reasonable and thoughtful regulation and bring assurance of a tested and safer product.”

PHOTO: A marijuana plant grows in the flowering room at a medical cannabis cultivation facility in Delavan, Wisc., Dec. 12, 2017. Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
A marijuana plant grows in the flowering room at a medical cannabis cultivation facility in Delavan, Wisc., Dec. 12, 2017.

Under the proposed law, Illinois residents 21 and older, beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, will be able to legally possess up to 30 grams of cannabis -- a little more than an ounce -- and will be able to purchase it from licensed marijuana dispensaries (currently there are only medical dispensaries and 22 state-licensed cultivation centers). Non-residents of Illinois will be permitted to possess about half the amount of weed than residents will be allowed to possess.

States that have already legalized recreational marijuana via a ballot initiative are Colorado, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Vermont, Alaska, Maine, Michigan, and Washington. Voters in Washington D.C. also legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2014 and the law went into effect a year later.

In June, Canadian lawmakers approved landmark legislation to fully legalize marijuana for the entire country.

Users will have to pay heavy sales taxes on the cannabis they purchase in Illinois. A 10% tax will be imposed on marijuana products containing less than 35% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound that gets users high, while products with higher doses of THC will carry a tax of up to 25% or more.

While purchasing pot will become legal, it will remain illegal to smoke marijuana in public places or to drive while under the influence.

Possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but since 2016 the federal government has relaxed prosecution of the law in states where cannabis has been made legal.

Illinois lawmakers who voted against the bill expressed concerns over public health and worries that not enough research is available on the effects of weed.

“I have many concerns and unanswered questions over the legalization of recreational marijuana, which is why I voted no on the legislation,” Rep. Norine Hammond, a Republican, said after the bill was passed.

Specifically, Hammond mentioned the possibility that former felons may be allowed to possess guns and dealers may have their records cleared in addition to the lack of a field sobriety test for pot. Possession of more than 100 grams of pot is a class 4 felony under state law.

"That will not make our communities safer," Hammond added. "These are issues that should’ve been addressed before the passage of this bill."