Illinois’ first cannabis czar heads to Washington to focus on nationwide legalization in new role

Toi Hutchinson
Toi Hutchinson will take over as CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project in January. Contributed
Toi Hutchinson
Toi Hutchinson will take over as CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project in January. Contributed

Illinois’ first cannabis czar heads to Washington to focus on nationwide legalization in new role

Toi Hutchinson will be the new CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project in January. The former Illinois state senator representing the south suburbs was a key figure in the movement to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in the state, which took effect in 2020.

Illinois was the first state to legalize weed through legislation. Gov. JB Pritzker tapped her as the state’s first-ever cannabis regulation oversight officer — also known as the “cannabis czar.”

According to the governor’s office, 492,129 non-felony cannabis-related arrest records have been expunged at the state level. Pritzker has pardoned more than 20,000 cannabis convictions since the signing of the legislation.This year the state agriculture department announced over 200 people qualified to receive craft grow, infuser, or transporter cannabis licenses; 67% identify as non-white. But there’s still been criticism that licenses go to white wealthy investors.

What are you most proud of in your time is what came to be known as Illinois marijuana czar?

Equity measures that we centered were in every pillar. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the first names that were gonna be expunged, and saw the first lists for pardons. And to sit here and now that we’ve cleared hundreds of thousands of arrests and criminal records is something I think I will take with me for the rest of my life. I’m incredibly proud of that because that touches so many people who just need a chance to live a full productive life and put that behind them. For too many people, especially Black and brown people, convictions and arrest records follow you for the rest of your lives. Our premise was, you can’t normalize and legalize an activity for whom the prohibition of the exact same activity destroyed communities for generations.

What do you think still needs some more work?

Well, changing the face of the industry is literally the heart, where you get the issues of race and capitalism and all those things rolled up into one. So it’s going to be a continual effort to one not only make sure that folks actually get in are able to compete, but that they can stay in and compete. What’s clear is that the applicant pool was the most diverse in history. I really feel strongly that no matter what happens, we’re going to see a completely revamped, new, more diverse marketplace and participation in Illinois, which is a model for everybody else.

There has been frustration though that not enough racial equity has been in the rollout of the state’s recreational marijuana. What if any mistakes do you think have been made along the way?

I think the biggest one was that when we were trying to think of all the things that we know, and all of the data that we had to try to design these programs, the one thing nobody saw coming was a perfect score — that a perfect score would be indicative of whether or not you could run a business. That’s one of the first things that we went back to the legislature to try to change. And then the other thing is that there’s just really a lack of understanding as to how many people are receiving this opportunity. What we know right now is on the Ag side, 43% of those licenses are Black owned. And on the retail side, we know the demographics of the lottery winners, and they are the same, they’re 41 to 43% Back owned.

You’ll be focused on national marijuana legislation. Tell us about your role and what you’ll be working on.

The Marijuana Policy Project focuses on state action. Right now we’re at about 18 states that have authorized adult use legalization. And we don’t believe that we’re going to get federal action until we hit that magic 25 number. We have to educate people. We have to do the best research and data analysis we possibly can and then keep concentrating on the states. Because the state action is what is going to keep the momentum going. These next couple cycles are going to be really how we get to 25 so we can start pushing and continue that march towards federal legalization that makes sense in a country where 178 million people already have access to legal, lawful tested regulated products. So it’s going to be very, very busy. And it’s an opportunity for me now to concentrate on the country and what federal policy actually looks like. And especially based on everything we’ve learned here in Illinois, how we can center equity at the crux of all of it.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.