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Full, 300-page pot legalization bill could be introduced in Illinois within days

Illinois Democrats this week plan to release the contents of their 300-page cannabis legalization bill. | AP file photo

With only five weeks left until the end of the legislative session, Democratic lawmakers are preparing to release their entire highly-anticipated bill to legalize marijuana for adult use.

With lawmakers preparing to return Tuesday from their two-week spring break, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy said the full details of the 300-page legislation could be introduced in the coming days. A shell of the legalization bill was introduced in the Senate in January and later passed the Senate Executive Committee in April before any details had been filed.

“We’re still on track and are hoping to have something to introduce this week,” Cassidy told the Sun-Times on Monday.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy says the members of the General Assembly who pushed to legalize marijuana have a new nickname for themselves.
Kelly Cassidy | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Cassidy said she and state Sen. Heather Steans, both Chicago Democrats, have tried to draft legislation “that centers equity and inclusion in the industry, that centers restoration of records and social justice components and restoration of communities.”

Under the legislation, which is being backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, misdemeanor pot convictions would be expunged, people with cannabis convictions would be allowed to work in the industry and diversity hiring goals would be set for firms in the industry.

Additionally, Cassidy said, the legislation would provide support for minority-owned businesses by offering technical assistance, as well as access to capital, loans and relief from fees that have posed a barrier to entry for smaller businesses. To further crack that barrier, the measure would also create new cannabis licensing categories for “craft” grow operations and companies that process and transport the drug.

“I’ve said for a long time that other states that have tried this have tended to try with a solution, but that presumes there’s a singular barrier to minority engagement in the industry,” Cassidy said. “And that’s simply not the case. These conversations have been about the best way to set up sort of a buffet of responses to the array of problems.”

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, the joint chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, lauded Steans and Cassidy for engaging African American lawmakers as they crafted the bill. Lightford noted that caucus members have also had continued discussions with Pritzker’s administration about how legalization can be used as a tool for racial and social equity.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, speaks on the Illinois Senate floor. | Blue Room Stream.
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, speaks on the Illinois Senate floor. | Blue Room Stream.

“The proposal that I’ve seen has some really good language in it and now it’s just the part of fine-tuning and making sure that advocates remain in support and removing as much opposition as you can,” said Lightford, who couldn’t say whether any members of the black caucus are opposed to the legalization plan.

But the push to legalize weed for recreational use has faced considerable resistance, including a resolution in March backed by the majority of House members that looked to slow down the prospective legalization process. However, the most sophisticated opposition has been coordinated by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Virginia-based nonprofit.

The group, which has staged similar campaigns in other states, has put together an anti-legalization coalition that includes the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the Illinois Chiefs of Police Association and the Illinois Drug Enforcement Officers Association. Most recently, the group has partnered with the Illinois Chapter of the NAACP in an effort to target Lightford’s colleagues in the black caucus.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana CEO Kevin Sabet said the group plans to continue applying pressure “from a press perspective [and] from a grassroots perspective.”

“There are a lot of people who are going to be standing in the way of this from passing,” said Sabet, a former advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Kevin Sabet and his group Smart Approaches to Marijuana are opposing legalization efforts in Illinois. | Smart Approaches to Marijuana website
Kevin Sabet and his group Smart Approaches to Marijuana are opposing legalization efforts in Illinois. | Smart Approaches to Marijuana website