Pot proponents cheer Senate, urge House to follow

Sen. Hutchinson, Rep. Gordon-Booth call legalization bill a model for nation

Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth and Sen. Toi Hutchinson urge the General Assembly to pass a bill legalizing marijuana and send it to the governor to be signed into law. (Blue Room Stream)

Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth and Sen. Toi Hutchinson urge the General Assembly to pass a bill legalizing marijuana and send it to the governor to be signed into law. (Blue Room Stream)

By Ted Cox

Advocates of legalizing marijuana applauded the state Senate for passing “the strongest, most equity-centered, most comprehensive piece of cannabis legislation in the nation” Wednesday night, and called on the House to immediately follow suit.

“We had a very strong roll call of 38 votes in favor,” boasted Sen. Toi Hutchinson of Olympia Fields at a Capitol news conference Thursday, and she urged the House to do the same later in the day and send House Bill 1438 to Gov. Pritzker to be signed into law.

Hutchinson and Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth of Peoria both touted the bill — the final version introduced with a Senate amendment Wednesday — as not just legalizing cannabis, but setting standards for public health, criminal justice, community equity, and overall regulation.

“This has a possibility of being transformational,” Hutchinson said, calling HB1438 “the strongest, most equity-centered, most comprehensive piece of cannabis legislation” in the nation. “This type of legislation, the way it is, does not exist anywhere else in this entire country.”

Gordon-Booth said it was the product of “a painstaking process with an emphasis on minority equity as the center of that policy.” She pointed out that other states that have legalized marijuana had merely thrown it to the electorate as a ballot initiative, while Illinois was hammering out the entire complex issue, including expungement of previous crimes under antiquated drugs laws, and providing an equity interest in minority communities that bore the brunt of the so-called War on Drugs.

“We are front-loading expungement in a constitutional way,” she said, “we are front-loading equity as it relates to who participates in the market, we are creating an environment that is understanding of the past harms committed by the War on Drugs.”

Hutchinson said, “After 80 years of prohibition, the communities that have been targeted the most and overpoliced the most and weathered the worst of the impacts of the failed War on Drugs have been black and brown across the state — and I would also say around the world.”

“The prohibition model doesn’t work,” said Rev. Alexander Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. “We are replacing it with regulation and taxation.

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“The prohibition model doesn’t work. We are replacing it with regulation and taxation.”

Rev. Alexander Sharp (Blue Room Stream)

“This bill begins to repair the damage that marijuana laws at the forefront of the War on Drugs have done to bring grievous harm to our poor, minority communities, certainly in Chicago and around the state,” Sharp said. “Our current laws bring violence with them. How can you have a War on Drugs, a war against a community, at the same time you want to relate to that community?”

The Senate amendment introduced this week took a step back from automatic expungement of drug crimes, and instead established a process for Gov. Pritzker to grant pardons for previous convictions on possessing up to 500 grams. It also called for 25 percent of government revenues from taxation to go to community grants in areas hit hard by pot arrests. Lead Senate sponsor Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago estimated legalization would generate $57 million in general revenue and $30 million for a business development fund in the first year, but estimates are a “mature” market in the state, as it gains widespread acceptance, could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars.

“If we’re talking about revenue like that, we need to put them in communities that were hurt the most,” Hutchinson said, adding that the community grants were intended for nonprofit groups “that do the work on the ground.”

Pritzker, who ran on a platform including legalization, endorsed the final version of the bill and applauded the Senate for passing it Wednesday. He issued a statement saying: “Illinois is poised to become the first state in the nation that put equity and criminal-justice reform at the heart of its approach to legalizing cannabis, and I’m grateful that the Senate has taken this important step with a bipartisan vote. Sens. Steans and Hutchinson have done tremendous work to reach this point, and I encourage the House to take decisive action to make Illinois a national leader in equity and criminal justice reform.”

Rep. Bob Morgan of Highwood said it would “reinvest in our communities across the state, especially those communities who need it most.”

Illinois AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Timothy Drea said it would “create good jobs and remove barriers on people who can’t get good jobs because they got caught — merely because they got caught.”

People United for Racial Equity estimated that 200,000 Illinoisans would have access to the expungements.

Edie Moore, executive director of the Chicago Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called it “the nation’s most equitable bill of its kind.” She backed it, even though it dropped a provision allowing residents to grow up to five pot plants at home, instead specifying that only participants int the state’s medical-marijuana program may do so. “The bill’s not perfect,” she said, “but it is a significant first step.”

“We cannot let perfect be the enemy of the good,” Hutchinson said. “What we cannot do is allow dual economies to continue existing where there’s no regulation of stuff in the shadows.”

Clint Brown, of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, said, “This is a bill for everyone, not just the wealthy, not just the special interests.” He called it “a bipartisan bill with the potential to expand our economy and lift up underserved communities.”

Hutchinson pointed out that three Republicans voted in favor in the Senate, and she and Gordon-Booth said they expected more Republicans to join in passing it in the House.

“Cannabis is just the first step,” Gordon-Booth said, adding that the same “equity lens” could be applied to other state investment, such as the much-anticipated capital bill on infrastructure.

“This industry is growing,” Hutchinson said. “There’s not a single person in this building who can stop this industry from growing.”

Hutchinson said they’d had to combat “decades and decades and decades of purposeful disinformation,” going back to the infamously comical “Reefer Madness,” to name just one example, but it looked as if the General Assembly was about to pass a legalization bill into law.

“This is what democracy’s supposed to look like,” she said, “when you get a whole bunch of people in the room who do not agree, with all their fears and all their worries and all their questions, and all the things that go into doing something this big.”