Illinois Becomes 11th State To Legalize Recreational Marijuana | WBEZ
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Illinois Becomes 11th State To Legalize Recreational Marijuana

Updated 5 p.m.

Gov. JB Pritzker on Tuesday signed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana starting next year, making Illinois the 11th state in the country to do so.

Pritzker campaigned heavily on legalizing cannabis, saying it’s an issue of criminal justice. He’s also relying on revenue from taxing pot to help the state’s substantial financial shortfalls.

The new law, which passed the General Assembly with mostly Democratic support, allows adults over 21 to possess and use marijuana recreationally starting next year. They will be able to buy the drug at dispensaries, which would have to undergo a rigorous state licensing process.

As a backdrop for signing the legislation, the governor chose a cultural center in Chicago’s impoverished Austin neighborhood on the city’s West Side to emphasize how the measure promotes justice and focuses heavily on communities that “suffered through the war on drugs.”

“With this legislation, our state once again is a leader, putting forward the most equity-centric cannabis legalization in the nation,” the governor said to applause from supporters of the bill.

“Illinoisans have had enough. They know that what we’re doing isn’t working,” Pritzker said. “They know criminalization offers nothing but pain, disruption and injustice.”

One big component of the new law creates a pathway for as many as 700,000 people with past marijuana convictions to have those wiped out. Anyone convicted of selling up to 30 grams of cannabis can now gain executive clemency through the governor.

For convictions linked to the sale of larger amounts up to 500 grams, a state’s attorney or individuals could petition the court to have those criminal records vacated and expunged.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx supported the measure and said some of those drug convictions deserve to be undone -- a belief she laid out during what only can be described as an awkward moment at Tuesday’s bill-signing ceremony.

“I will ask the question that many will ask -- not that question,” she said, eliciting laughter in the room by alluding -- apparently -- to her office’s handling of the hate crime hoax engineered by actor Jussie Smollet. “Why is a prosecutor at the center of pushing for conviction and equity relief for the hundreds of thousands? Because there were prosecutors who implemented these convictions.”

Foxx left the ceremony without taking questions.

Pritzker consistently has played down the idea of using legalized cannabis as a cash cow for the financially troubled state, but an undeniable financial reward awaits Springfield as a result of the governor’s action Tuesday.

Revenue estimates have varied, with the governor acknowledging Tuesday the state could reap as much as $500 million from the cannabis-legalization effort within five years. However, the Illinois Department of Revenue projected peak annual revenues for the state could top $375 million by 2024.

Funds from the program will be divvied up between the state’s main operating fund, local governments, substance-abuse programs and Illinois’ multibillion-dollar unpaid bill backlog. One quarter of new revenues will go toward a grant program targeting areas that have fallen victim to the illegal drug trade and aggressive drug enforcement.

The legislation would allow in-state users to buy and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, which one study says is roughly equivalent to 90 joints. Combined state tax rates could reach as high as 32 percent, depending on the caliber of marijuana, and the law permits cities to tack on as much as 3-percent more in marijuana taxes. Counties also can tax marijuana.

To ensure minorities have a place within the lucrative pot market, the package establishes a $30 million low-interest loan program to offset start-up costs in establishing minority-owned dispensaries.

“We have taken a lot of measures here to try to ensure that we do try to put in place an industry that is reflective of the state of Illinois and tools to make sure we get there,” said Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor. “I think we’re going to become the model legislation now, setting the gold standard of how this needs to be done in the future."

The legislation allows only medical cannabis patients to have up to five plants taller than 5 inches, as long as they are kept at home in a locked area out of public view. Earlier versions of the bill would have let anyone grow marijuana, but that provision was stricken from the package.

The measure also lets local communities decide whether they want marijuana businesses within their boundaries, and it gives employers the right to decide whether they want to maintain drug-free workplaces -- provisions that drew praise Tuesday from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

“While the chamber has questioned whether this is the right direction for Illinois, we remained engaged in constructive dialogue with the administration, sponsors and legislators throughout the process,” Illinois Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd Maisch said in a prepared statement.

“We believe the bill Gov. Pritzker signed today includes the strongest workplace protections in the nation, and maintains sturdy local control over zoning,” Maisch said.

When the legislation passed the House and Senate, Republicans largely voted against it. But one member of the GOP was on hand for Tuesday’s bill-signing, state Rep. David Welter, R-Morris, who was a House co-sponsor of the bill.

“To some it might seem unlikely for a Republican to be a chief co-sponsor on adult cannabis recreational legalization, but it shouldn’t. In fact, this should be a model for future states looking forward to legalizing,” he said, while praising Pritzker’s role in getting the law enacted.

The package includes a prohibition on members of the state legislature or state employees in agencies that will regulate the cannabis industry from owning any financial stake in companies that get licensed by the state to buy or sell cannabis within a two-year period after the law takes effect.

That provision takes aim at lawmakers like state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, who is now the subject of a secretary of state investigation after reporting by WCIA-TV. The station found that she was offering paid cannabis investment seminars and was part of a company that intends to apply for a state license to grow and sell cannabis.

Illinois’ legalization of the possession and use of cannabis is part of a national trend in which 10 states and the District of Columbia, so far, have allowed people to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.

WBEZ's Alyssa Edes produced this interview for broadcast. Follow her @alyssaedes.

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