On Tuesday Illinois became the 11th state in the U.S. to make cannabis legal for recreational use, but the state’s new legalization bill will also grant relief to about 770,000 residents of the state with marijuana-related offenses on their criminal records.
The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, which will come into effect in 2020, has been hailed for not only ending cannabis prohibition but for also including broad criminal justice reforms that seek to undo the damage done against those who have run afoul of the state’s prohibitionist policies.
The 610-page act allows anyone with convictions of up to 30 grams of cannabis to automatically receive clemency and have their pot convictions expunged from their criminal records. Anyone convicted of larger amounts ranging from 30 to 500 grams would have the ability to petition the court to have the charges lifted.
Expungement is the process whereby a judge seals a criminal record from view, or ‘erases’ it in the eyes of the law. Records with past convictions pulled up in criminal background checks can often bar people from accessing housing or jobs, placing them in a position of de facto second-class citizenship.
The bill also allow for those with cannabis convictions to be given expedited access to business licenses and access to loans, capital, and protection from fees that are often used to place barriers to entry for smaller businesses. And $12 million will be allocated to startup business in the cannabis industry as well as funding for job training programs related to the Illinois cannabis industry.
The state’s Department of Agriculture will also create programs to assist the entry of people into the legal cannabis industry, with priority given to low-income students and communities who were previously targeted by anti-drug laws.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker successfully campaigned last year on a platform that included strong support for legalizing recreational cannabis, arguing that an end to prohibitionist laws would be an economic boon to the state, generating $800 million to $1 billion of revenue per year, reports the Associated Press.
The state of Illinois just made history, legalizing adult-use cannabis with the most equity-centric approach in the nation.
— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) May 31, 2019
Pritzker has also blasted the harm caused by the war on drugs, especially in terms of its negative impact on communities of color.
While signing the legislation, Pritzker said:
“The war on cannabis has destroyed families, filled prisons with nonviolent offenders, and disproportionately disrupted black and brown communities.
Law enforcement across the nation has spent billions of dollars to enforce the criminalization of cannabis, yet its consumption remains widespread.”
Cannabis has been subject to prohibitionist laws since 1937, when the plant largely demonized and associated with Mexican immigrants amid rising racist and nativist attitudes supported by federal and local authorities and media outlets. During the 1970s, marijuana was depicted by authorities as a drug serving no medicinal purpose that was simply abused by delinquents seeking to get high.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of U.S. residents, including 74 percent of millennials, favor an end to the prohibition of cannabis.
During the signing ceremony, Pritzker cited a 2010 statistic from the ACLU noting that while black people comprise 15 percent of the state population, they disproportionately account for 60 percent of cannabis-possession arrests.
A 2018 report by the Drug Policy Alliance found that, even in states where marijuana had been legalized, people of color still faced a far greater rate of arrests on charges of marijuana possession than did their white counterparts.
In 1996, California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use, and over 34 states have since done the same. With Illinois’ passage of the new law, it joins ten other states along with Washington, D.C. that have freed the herb almost entirely for recreational purposes. 18 states have also decriminalized the plant, which still remains illegal under federal law.
Illinois joins Washington as the latest state offering clemency to marijuana offenders, with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signing a law granting those with cannabis convictions to vacate their sentences in the state.