Illinois Senate Advances Legalized Recreational Marijuana

A grower inspects marijuana plants inside the Ataraxia medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill.
A grower inspects marijuana plants inside the Ataraxia medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill. AP Photo/Seth Perlman
A grower inspects marijuana plants inside the Ataraxia medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill.
A grower inspects marijuana plants inside the Ataraxia medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill. AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Illinois Senate Advances Legalized Recreational Marijuana

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Updated 7:14 p.m.

The state Senate Wednesday moved Illinois one step closer to becoming the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis, voting overwhelmingly for one of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s top Springfield priorities.

The sprawling, 610-page bill, which was approved on a 38-17 roll call, would permit Illinoisans 21 and older to buy and sell marijuana beginning in January. The measure still needs approval from the House and governor before becoming law.

“We’re standing on the steps of history because we should be a model for how you do this legislatively,” Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, said during debate.

The governor has stressed that he isn’t pushing the issue as a salvation to Illinois’ vast financial woes, but it would have a significant impact. In his outline for a 2020 state budget, Pritzker banked on licensing fees for recreational cannabis yielding $170 million for the state.

Revenues from the program would be divvied up between the state’s main operating fund, local governments, substance-abuse programs, Illinois’ multibillion-dollar unpaid bill backlog and a grant program targeting underprivileged areas that have fallen victim to the illegal drug trade.

“We know prohibition’s not working. It’s time to come up with a better policy,” said Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat who was the legislation’s chief Senate sponsor. “We want social justice, safety for our kids and the state to realize additional revenue.”

Wednesday’s Senate vote did not fall strictly along party lines. Three Republicans voted in favor of legalization. Those were state Sens. Neil Anderson, R-Rock Island, Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, and Steve McClure, R-Springfield..

Critics — which have included law enforcement representatives — contended legalizing the sale and possession of marijuana would carry a huge social cost. They argue legalized weed would worsen addiction and cause the drug to gain a larger toehold among underage users.

“Our kids are watching this,” said Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. “Maybe this is ok for us now and in a couple years we’ll get tax revenue. But what’s it mean 10 or 15 years down the road?”

One big component of the bill would create a pathway for people with past marijuana convictions to have those wiped out. Anyone convicted of selling up to 30 grams of cannabis could gain executive clemency through the governor.

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

The legislation would allow only medical cannabis patients to have up to five plants taller than 5 inches so long as they are kept in their homes 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 voted on Wednesday.

The measure also would grant local communities to 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.

Additionally, landlords would not be compelled to allow renters to use marijuana in their buildings under the legislation.

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 would take 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 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’ move toward legalizing 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.

The plan’s prospects in the House appear positive. House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has voiced his support for the measure.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the required height of homegrown marijuana plants under the proposed legislation.

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