Legal-pot law commits to 'equity' issues

Legislation intends to expunge marijuana busts, reward communities hurt by ‘War on Drugs’

Gov. Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Stratton have made sure the legalization law lives up to sponsors’ goals on so-called equity issues. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Gov. Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Stratton have made sure the legalization law lives up to sponsors’ goals on so-called equity issues. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

The state’s legislation to legalize marijuana is all rolled up and ready to go, perhaps as soon as New Year’s Day next year. The question now is whether the General Assembly will spark it up or burn it entirely.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lead sponsors Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago led several backers in releasing a 522-page text of the proposed law over the weekend at the Black United Fund of Illinois.

While setting the stage to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older, the law took special pains to address “equity” issues, encouraging minority ownership of cultivation companies and dispensaries, trying to limit corporations from dominating the field, and setting up an automated system to expunge an estimated 800,000 pot convictions.

Calling it “the most equity-centric law in the nation,” Pritzker said, “From the outset, I made clear that any plan for adult-use cannabis had to prioritize social justice and equity, and the approach we’re taking starts righting some historic wrongs and opening up access to this new market with a $20 million loan program that will help qualified applicants from impacted communities.”

Pritzker, Steans, and Cassidy all made those equity issues key to any legalization law, with Cassidy calling it “the hill I’m willing to die on.”

“Prohibition hasn’t worked,” Cassidy said. “We’re unveiling legislation that represents an important change in public policy, and it is long overdue. We wanted to create a safe, legal, and comprehensive regulatory system that protects patient access and allows adults to use cannabis while keeping it out of the hands of children. We wanted to address the years, the decades of unfairness in the ways that our drug laws have been enforced. This bill represents a giant leap in the right direction.”

Steans said the bill “stems from an inclusive process that entailed community meetings, town halls, and legislative working groups,” adding, “In spite of having a wide variety of views, most of us wanted the same basic things — social justice, safety for our kids, and revenue for our state. I think we’ve done a good job of balancing these three goals.”

Supporters called it “a starting point to kick off the next phase,” with Pritzker saying, “Years of work by stakeholders across Illinois means that today we are putting forward a framework for the General Assembly to move forward this session to legalize adult use cannabis, and we welcome additional feedback and insight during this debate.”

Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot applauded the proposal Monday, issuing a statement calling it “an important step forward in creating a fair process for legalizing recreational marijuana.” She added that “it allows Illinois the opportunity to put an end to a long overdue and unjust drug policy that has disproportionately affected Chicago’s black and brown neighborhoods for decades.” She pledged to work with Cassidy, Pritzker, and others “to ensure safe and equitable legislation becomes law in Illinois.”

Basically, the law allows possession of 30 grams, or just over an ounce, of what old-school pot smokers would call “grass,” 5 grams of cannabis concentrates like hash oil or other cannabis-derived oils, and a half-gram of marijuana-infused edibles.

It sets up a 7 percent tax on the wholesale level for cultivators, and three separate tax brackets for legal weed on the retail market: 10 percent for products with 35 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, 20 percent for all cannabis-infused products, and 25 percent for products with over 35 percent THC. It also allows local taxes up to a point.

Among the equity provisions, it would set up a $20 million low-interest-loan program, with various provisions to encourage “social equity applicant(s)" from areas that bore the brunt of the “War on Drugs,” including those who’ve already been convicted on old or existing marijuana laws.

It also allows Illinoisans to grow their own, up to five plants, a key element for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ Illinois chapter, although it took issue with language meant to discourage homegrown from being sold on the black market, as well as concessions made to entrenched firms that already have a foot in the door through the state’s medical-marijuana program.

“We are happy that the homegrow provisions are still in the bill but there should have been some foresight to understanding that when folks harvest their crops they should be able to gift some of the harvest to their friends, family, and neighbors just like we allow with tomatoes,” said Dan Linn, executive director of NORML Illinois. “Also i am happy to see such a robust effort to bring social equity to the market but compared to the amount of advantages this gives the current medical cannabis industry any new licensees will have a hard time competing. Furthermore, with the caps on the amount of licenses, i think this is setting up one of the most extreme shortages of product when sales start that we have witnessed in new markets.”


“We are happy that the homegrow provisions are still in the bill but … when folks harvest their crops they should be able to gift some of the harvest to their friends, family, and neighbors just like we allow with tomatoes.”

Dan Linn, executive director of NORML Illinois (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

A NORML Illinois study previously warned the state was heading for a potential shortage in trying to launch its legalization program in short order.

The Governor’s Office set the main priorities as: “legalizing the use of cannabis for adults aged 21 and older, promoting equity in ownership and participation in this emerging sector, advancing justice by expunging the records of people with minor cannabis convictions, and reinvesting funding in communities that have suffered the most from discriminatory drug policies.”

“This legislation puts social justice first by acknowledging the damages to overpoliced communities during prohibition,” said Sen. Toi Hutchinson of Olympia Fields. “The expungement program is the most ambitious and comprehensive in the nation, creating a mechanism for erasing hundreds of thousands of offenses. It creates investment in the overpoliced communities … and it creates a low-interest-loan program as well as a social-equity-applicant status, so that communities of color can reap the benefits of legalization.”

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, who worked on the issue through the transition and after, said, “Before Governor Pritzker and I took office, we promised to make Illinois a more equitable state. This bill advances equity by providing resources and second chances to people and communities that have been harmed by policies such as the failed ‘War on Drugs.’ I’m very proud that we’re working in the right direction.”

Although legalization has already drawn flak from various groups on a law-and-order platform, Brendan Kelly, acting director of the Illinois State Police, defended it, saying troopers “will be a responsible partner in enforcing the law and ensuring any and all provisions of adult-use legislation are strictly and efficiently complied with. We are committed to ensuring the safety of the residents of Illinois.”

Pritzker has projected $170 million in revenue from licensing and other fees in his 2020 budget. Taxes are apportioned at 35 percent for the state’s General Fund, 25 percent for community development, 20 percent for marijuana addiction treatment, 10 percent for unpaid bills, 8 percent for law-enforcement training, and 2 percent for public drug education and outreach.

Driving under the influence will still be illegal, of course, and businesses can still set regulations for employees on marijuana use.