The Uncertain Countdown to Recreational Marijuana in Illinois

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By: Nicole Campbell, Class of 2020

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritkzer is very vocal in his belief that Illinois legislature can achieve his political goal of bringing adult-use cannabis to the state before lawmakers adjourn at the end of the month. With a multitude of various issues and agreements needing further collaboration, political insiders are divided in their predictions of the law passing both the IL Senate and House prior to the approaching May 31 deadline.


Benefitting from both strong constituent support garnered through voter polls and that of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, marijuana legalization’s progress has slowed as critical details remain unresolved. Debates still wage around how best to address those currently with marijuana convictions on their criminal records, how the new tax revenue will be proportioned, and how to best include and give industry opportunities to diverse business owners. Other significant issues include: determining who will be newly eligible for a license to grow and sell cannabis, whether growing at home will be permitted, where (if anywhere) should be legal for adult use outside of individuals’ homes, and even the implications recreational cannabis on workers’ compensation claims and on police assessing cannabis-related DUI in the absence of a test/device equivalent to an alcohol breathalyzer.

Illinois currently allows almost 60,000 residents access to legal cannabis through its medical marijuana program, but the program is limited to adults with a chronic condition such as cancer, epilepsy, pain, or PTSD. State Sen. Heather Steans, a Democrat from Chicago, introduced Senate Bill 7’s only last month, and the alacrity of Illinois’ Democrats push for its adoption has some Republicans hesitant—specifically regarding certain provisions for expungement. While possessing roughly a pound of cannabis would remain illegal, the proposed legislation would allow those currently convicted of the same offense to enjoy clean records, a critical component for some Democrats. Sen. Steans stated, “I’m convinced that section will be changed based on the input we’ve been getting,” though silent on what a revised expungement proposal could potentially look like.

What lawmakers can tentatively agree on is that any adult-use legislation will include provisions expunging misdemeanor and less serious felony offenses, but even that is not without its logistical challenges. For one, Illinois’ court records are far from centralized or even fully computerized. With some legislative discussions centering around expunging marijuana convictions up to and including those through the 1970’s, lawmakers have to consider the potential burden for local police departments and county clerks in finding them.

Sen. Steans says the Senate will receive the proposed changes this week, and approval requires thirty Senate votes before going to the House for a majority vote. Interestingly, a majority of House members have signed a resolution calling for more dialogue. Headed by state Rep. Marty Moylan (D) of Des Plaines, sixty representatives now support “slow[ing] the process of legalizing recreational marijuana.” Mental health advocates including Sara Howe, CEO of Illinois Association for Behavioral Health caution that frameworks need to be developed and budgeted for in advance of the inevitable behavioral healthcare impact legalized use will create.

One Illinois county has already voted to ban marijuana dispensaries, should the state pass an adult-use law. Clark County, a southeastern county that borders Indiana, cited a population of just over 16,000 in the 2010 census. Meeting this past Friday, May 17, 2019, the Clark County Council unanimously voted in favor of drafting a resolution against the law, proactively insulating them from any changes at the state level.

While recreational legalization seems an inevitable future for Illinois, home of two public, multi-state, vertically-integrated cannabis companies (Cresco and GTI), it is unlikely that the multitude of remaining uncertainties will be resolved by May 31. Given Illinois’ history of questionable deals that have long-term impacts on its residents (Chicago’s parking meter fiasco comes to mind), cannabis legalization should be approached in a thoughtful, bipartisan manner. If lawmakers leave the burden of future debate to communities and residents while giving legal access to a new drug class without a comprehensive plan, they will have squandered an excellent opportunity to be a model of thoughtful legalization in this dynamic, nascent industry.