Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, releases the full, much-anticipated bill to lift the statewide prohibition on marijuana as state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, third from left, and other pro-pot Demorats listen. File Photo. | Tom Schuba for the Sun-Times

Pritzker, Dems introduce bill to legalize marijuana statewide

Gov. J.B. Pritzker Saturday announced the full details of the much-anticipated bill that would lift the statewide prohibition on marijuana and allow Illinois pot shops to start selling the drug legally by the start of the new year.

The 300-page legislation would allow Illinoisans over 21 years old to possess 30 grams, or just over an ounce of cannabis flower — or the dried plant matter that’s commonly smoked — and 5 grams, or less than a quarter-ounce, of cannabis concentrates like hash oil. Additionally, Illinoisans would be able to carry up to a half-gram of pot-infused products like edibles.

While Pritzker didn’t touch on how much tax money could be generated and the bill doesn’t include revenue estimates, the governor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 included $170 million in projected revenue from licensing and fees related to legal cannabis. Instead of extolling the potential economic benefits of legalization, Pritzker and his allies stressed the ways the measure would prioritize racial and social equity and address the toll of the drug war on minority communities.

“We are taking a major step forward to legalize adult use cannabis and to celebrate the fact that Illinois is going to have the most equity-centric law in the nation. For the many individuals and families whose lives have been changed, indeed hurt, because the nation’s war on drugs discriminated against people of color, this day belongs to you, too,” Pritzker said during a news conference at the Black United Fund of Illinois’ office at 1809 E. 71st St.

With just four weeks left in the current legislative session, Pritzker is hoping to notch a major victory by making good on one of his more popular campaign promises.

The bill’s sweeping criminal and social justice considerations include plans to use an automated system to expunge roughly 800,000 marijuana convictions and allow those with pot convictions to work in the legal cannabis industry. The measure would also create a designation for “social equity applicants” hoping to obtain licenses and provide minority-owned businesses support by offering technical assistance, access to capital and loans and relief from fees that have posed a barrier to entry for those looking to crack into the state’s pot industry — which is currently dominated by a handful of predominantly-white medical marijuana companies.

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, who contributed to the bill, said the plan “serves as the single-biggest piece of criminal justice reform as it relates to the war on drugs that the Legislative Black Caucus has ever been able to be a part of passing.”

The measure is sponsored by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans, Chicago Democrats who previously introduced similar legislation in 2017 that failed to gain traction under former Gov. Bruce Rauner. During the news conference, Steans said she and her colleagues are also pushing for “revenue that, instead of going to the illicit market, comes and benefits the people in Illinois.”

Under the bill, 25% of that revenue would go to areas that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs and another 20% would fund programs focused on treating mental health and substance abuse issues. Pot products with less than 35% of THC – the chemical compound that gets users high – would be taxed at 10%, while products with more THC would be taxed at 25%. Cannabis-infused products would carry a 20% tax.

Despite polls showing support from a majority of Illinois voters, pro-legalization lawmakers are opposed by legislators and special interest groups who have highlighted the perceived dangers of a legal weed market. The current bill would allow Illinoisans to grow up to five plants in a secure place inside their homes, something that has faced stiff resistance from opponents who fear that pot could wind up on the black market.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Virginia-based nonprofit, has led a sophisticated effort to oppose the push for pot legalization in Illinois. The group’s founder and president Kevin Sabet, a former advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Policy and Control, said “the consequences of this bill are far reaching and will have devastating impacts on citizens, communities and youth.”

“Numerous studies and data from other states have shown that this is not a good move for Illinois,” Sabet said in a statement Saturday. “It won’t bring in the revenue promised, while ushering in new, costly regulatory burdens, more hospitalizations, increased drugged driving incidents and unregulated, highly potent pot products.”

Sabet noted that a majority of Illinois House members have signed onto a resolution introduced by Rep. Marty Moylan, D-Des Plaines, that aims to slow down the legalization process. At Saturday’s press conference, Pritzker rebuffed the calls to pump the brakes and argued that the bill has been thoroughly reviewed by six separate working groups.

Nevertheless, Sabet claimed that “marijuana is not inevitable.”

“Lawmakers should vote ‘no’ on legal pot and ‘no’ on this bill,” he said.

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