Illinois on the Precipice of Legalizing Marijuana

Illinois is poised to become the first state that – via the legislature rather than a ballot initiative – will allow marijuana to be legally sold and used, following Senate action just days before the General Assembly is set to adjourn.

On a bipartisan, 38-17 vote, the Illinois Senate on Wednesday evening approved a newly revised measure (House Bill 1438, Senate Amendment 2) that would allow anyone age 21 or older to buy and use weed starting in January.

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If it gets to his desk, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritkzer, who had campaigned on recreational adult-use cannabis, is expected to sign the plan into law.

“Illinois is poised to become the first state in the nation that put equity and criminal justice reform at the heart of its approach to legalizing cannabis, and I’m grateful that the Senate has taken this important step with a bipartisan vote,” Pritzker said in a statement. “I encourage the House to take decisive action to make Illinois a national leader in equity and criminal justice reform.”

As the statement indicates, supporters shouldn’t break out the champagne – or bongs – just yet.

While the measure’s sponsors made changes meant to pacify wary Republicans, law enforcement and business groups, passage is still uncertain in the Illinois House.

Among the changes:

• Only medical marijuana patients will be permitted to grow cannabis plants at home; the original version of the proposal (Senate Bill 7) would have permitted recreational users to grow up to five plants, as long as they were not in public view

• The creation of new, parallel processes for expunging records of criminals convicted of certain drug crimes. It’s a compromise meant to help appease Republicans and police concerned that the original version’s automatic expungement was too liberal, while creating relief and a path to employment for minorities disproportionally punished as part of the war on drugs. The governor would be empowered to pardon those with convictions for possession of up to 30 grams of buds (the amount that Illinois residents could legally possess should the measure become law); offenders with convictions of 31-500 grams may have to initiate the expungement process themselves, but would have a defined pathway to do so.

• In a bow to businesses concerned about how to handle employees who may take advantage of legal weed, employers could have zero-tolerance drug policies; the Illinois Chamber of Commerce is now neutral on the bill; its director, Todd Maisch, said Wednesday the chamber recognizes changing social norms but has lifted its opposition given that the proposal now contains what he describes as the strongest “workplace protections” in the nation.

“Big picture is that we know prohibition’s not working. It’s time to come up with a better policy. We want social justice, safety for our kids and the state to realize additional revenue. I think the bill that we’ve been doing represents a really balanced approach to this,” sponsoring Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said during a Wednesday-afternoon committee before presenting the new changes.

Law enforcement groups were not pacified, however; the lack of technology to test for marijuana-induced impairment and the plan’s allowance for medical marijuana patients to grow cannabis at home are of particular concern.

“The concern there still remains in terms of home grow. We don’t have access. We won’t be able to tell who’s doing what. The penalties associated with home grow, anything less than five plants is a civil citation, from $100 to a max of $200. That is a concern for us. We want to make sure that it is a strong deterrent for home grow,” said Jim Kaitschuk on behalf of the Illinois Sheriff’s Association.

Other issues

In other legislative action, the Illinois House approved a bill (Senate Bill 1966) to require Firearm Owners Identification Card applications to be fingerprinted, to increase the cost of a FOID card from $10 for a 10-year license to $20 for a five-year license, and to require private gun sales to go through a licensed dealer. The measure passed 62 to 52 after three hours of heated debate, and opposition from advocates of the Second Amendment.

“You should not have to pay money to exercise your Constitutional rights. We have a guaranteed right to own a firearm under the Constitution, but here in Illinois to exercise that right, you must jump through all kinds of hoops and pay all kinds of money to the state,” Illinois State Rifle Association Director Richard Pearson said.

Meanwhile, another measure that suddenly and swiftly won approval from both a Senate committee and the full chamber on Wednesday would raise the cost of dining out in Chicago. Senate Bill 485 would extend a 1% Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority tax on bars and restaurants from a limited radius near the convention center to a 10-mile radius, extending to most Chicago neighborhoods. The plan also increases the authority’s bonding limits, all in support of a new $600 million McCormick Place building.

A state budget plan has yet to be formally introduced, though those involved in negotiations say that will happen shortly.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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