Illinois’ Huge Plan To Legalize Recreational Marijuana | WBEZ
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What’s In Illinois’ Sweeping Plan To Legalize Recreational Marijuana

Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker unveiled a sweeping plan Saturday to legalize recreational cannabis in Illinois, bring in much-needed money for the cash-strapped state and expunge the criminal records of about 800,000 people who’ve been jailed or charged for pot-related crimes.

“This is going to be the most progressive, most just adult-use cannabis bill in the country,” said state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, a key negotiator of the measure.

The draft bill calls for recreational marijuana sales to begin in Illinois starting Jan. 1, 2020 for adults over the age of 21. They’d be able to buy weed and marijuana-infused products at state-licensed dispensaries.

Taxes on pot products would range from 10% to 25%, depending on the type and its THC content. If they don’t opt out of the program, local governments would get to levy their own sales taxes, too.

The proposal also contains processes for people who were previously convicted of pot-related crimes to have their records expunged. And it creates a program designed to attract women and people of color to the legal weed business, which has traditionally been an mostly white industry.

The 522-page proposal is set to be formally introduced to the state legislature Monday.

Some other provisions in the plan:

  • Illinois residents over the age of 21 would legally be allowed to possess 30 grams of cannabis flower, 5 grams of cannabis concentrate and 500 milligrams of THC contained in a cannabis-infused product. Those limits would be half as much for out-of-staters.

  • The state would impose a $5,000 application fee to get a state license. Licenses for growing and selling pot range from $10,000 to $40,000, depending on the type of business activity.

  • A $20 million low-interest loan program will be created to help people with the costs of entering the legalized cannabis industry.

  • The proposal establishes a special status for those who wish to get a cannabis license and reside in an area that’s been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, or have been arrested for low level possession of marijuana in the past.

  • Certain people arrested for possession, delivering or growing marijuana in the past would be eligible to have their criminal records expunged.

  • Employers could continue to establish their own drug policies for employees.

  • Households could grow up to five cannabis plants under certain conditions.

One hangup in negotiations was the access minorities would have to be able to profit off the legalization of cannabis. As other states legalized marijuana and created a gold rush, they left out the communities that had been hurt most by the criminalization of pot, Pritzker said.

“Equity was the most important piece of this legislation,” Pritzker said. “We’re creating a new industry. We’re doing it in a safe way and we’re bringing criminal justice reform to the fore.”

Pritzker is relying on the legalization of marijuana to help fill a more than $3 billion hole in next year’s state budget.

In February, the governor estimated the state could bring in $170 million from regulating cannabis within the next year. It’s not immediately clear whether that number holds true under this new proposal. Pritzker’s administration said updated revenue estimates are forthcoming “in the coming days.”

Another key negotiator, state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said the previous budget estimate had not anticipated that sales would begin on Jan. 1, 2020.

Politically, the bill’s passage in the statehouse is not a given, despite being a hallmark component of Pritzker’s campaign for governor.

State Rep. Marty Moylan, D-Des Plaines, led a nonbinding referendum asking Pritzker to slow down legalization to more fully examine the potential consequences. He and other lawmakers had questions about the physical effects on children, people driving under the influence and other concerns. That measure had 60 House members supporting it as of Saturday, a majority of the chamber’s members.

But the bill’s backers encouraged their colleagues to move quickly.

“This is the single biggest piece of criminal justice reform as it relates to the war on drugs that the Legislative Black Caucus has ever been able to be a part of passing,” said state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields.

“Anybody that says we should slow down and not look at this and not take this on and all those things, they’re saying that it’s OK the way it is right now,” she said. “It is not OK the way it is right now.”

Pritzker unveiled the proposal in a rare Saturday morning news conference, a time politicians rarely use for major policy announcements because fewer people pay attention to news on weekends.

But it’s also a sign of how consequential the month of May will be for the freshman governor, who’s intent on pushing many of his campaign promises through the General Assembly by a May 31 deadline.

Pritzker bankrolled Democratic candidates and party infrastructure around the state during his campaign, spending more of his own personal wealth to win election than any other candidate in the history of the country. Now he needs every vote he can get to save him from political embarrassment if he can’t convince enough Democrats — who hold a supermajority in both the House and Senate — to approve his top agenda items.

In addition to legalizing pot, other measures that Pritzker wants to pass include: a state constitutional change from the current flat income tax to a graduated one; an infrastructure bill with a yet-to-be-determined funding stream that may include an increase in the gas tax; legalizing sports betting, with the potential addition of more casinos, including in Chicago; raising or creating taxes on cigarettes, vaping products and plastic bags; and passing a state budget.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

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