Illinois House approves marijuana legalization bill backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker

llinois is one signature away from joining the 10 other states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana.

With a bipartisan vote of 66-47, the House approved a bill Friday that had been passed by the Senate Wednesday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who campaigned for office on a promise to legalize pot, almost immediately issued a statement in which he promised to sign a bill that he said offers “the most equity-centric approach in the nation.”

“This will have a transformational impact on our state, creating opportunity in the communities that need it most and giving so many a second chance,” Pritzker said in his statement.

With the governor’s signature, Illinois would become the first state to create a commercial recreational marijuana industry through the legislature rather than by voter initiative.

Supporters hailed the measure as an acknowledgement that the prohibition of marijuana has failed, and they argued that the bill will begin to address decades of racial disparities in the prosecution of drug crimes.

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“Prohibition hasn’t built communities. In fact, it has destroyed them,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, who worked with Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans for more than two years to craft the bill. “It is time to hit the reset button on the war on drugs.”

The bill takes effect Jan. 1 and would allow residents age 21 and older to legally possess 30 grams of cannabis, 5 grams of cannabis concentrate or 500 milligrams of THC contained in a cannabis-infused product. Nonresidents could possess 15 grams of cannabis.

It would also create a licensed cultivation and dispensary system while directing Pritzker to pardon people with past convictions for low-level pot possession.

Where recreational and medical pot is legal

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Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Peoria Democrat, said the discussion about the bill’s expungement provisions was the first time in her decade as a lawmaker that minority communities were at the center of a major policy decision.

Wiping people’s criminal records clean will open up new educational and career opportunities that will help lift people out of poverty, Gordon-Booth said.

“If you are wearing the scarlet letter of a conviction, you are now calcified in poverty because of a mistake,” she said. “Not even a mistake, a choice.”

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Opponents have raised concerns that the bill will increase teen use of marijuana and result in more people driving while high, and they have also cited health concerns, among other problems.

“If this bill passes, a giant, big-money industry will commercialize another harmful, addictive drug in our state,” said Rep. Marty Moylan, a Des Plaines Democrat and outspoken opponent of legalization.

After pushback from fellow lawmakers, law enforcement and other interests, the bill’s sponsors tweaked their original proposal to win broader support, limiting possession of homegrown cannabis to patients in the state’s medical marijuana program and toning down provisions dealing with expungement of criminal records.

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The bill would allow employers to maintain a “zero tolerance” policy for cannabis in the workplace and would create a task force through the Illinois State Police to examine ways to enforce DUI laws involving marijuana use. Local governments would have wide-ranging control over zoning for marijuana-related businesses, including the ability to prohibit them.

Those changes helped win support from a handful of Republicans in both chambers, including Rep. David Welter of Morris, who signed on as a co-sponsor.

“I’m a father of three from a rural district, and I’m standing before you supporting this bill because I do not believe the current policy that we have out there right now is working,” Welter said. “Prohibition doesn’t work, and we see that. Putting safeguards in place, taxing, regulating it, I believe provides a better market and a safer market.”

The bill would create a social equity program to help minority business owners enter the marijuana industry, including through grants and loans. It also establishes a grant fund to help pay for programs in communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

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Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who spoke in favor of the bill at a House committee meeting Thursday night, issued a statement cheering the legislation’s passage.

“The failed war on drugs has disproportionately impacted communities of color, and my office will continue to explore ways to provide the broadest relief possible, beyond that provided by this legislation,” Foxx said.

Legalizing marijuana is expected to generate $57 million in general revenue in the coming budget year and $30 million for a cannabis business development fund. That’s far less than the $170 million Pritzker projected in his spending plan, but budget negotiators have said they aren’t counting on any of that revenue.

After paying for regulatory expenses and costs related to the expungement process, marijuana revenue would be divided among a number of areas. The largest share, 35%, would go into the state’s general fund; 25% would go to community grants; 20% to mental health and substance abuse programs; 10% to pay down the state’s backlog of unpaid bills; 8% to support law enforcement; and 2% for public education.

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

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