Marijuana bill has many Illinoisans asking whether it goes far enough

By Madison Schlegel, Benjamin Conboy, Jerad Karasek, Ella Lee, Xavier Ortega

Gov. J.B. Pritzker campaigned on legalizing recreational marijuana in Illinois, and the official proposal in the Illinois General Assembly just cleared a major hurdle.

On May 29, the Illinois Senate voted to pass the legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Heather Steans, 38-17, in a vote that gathered bipartisan support. In the Illinois House of Representatives, the bill was passed May 31, also gathering a bipartisan vote of 66-47. Now, the bill awaits Pritzker’s signature.

If it becomes a law as expected, the bill will allow Illinois residents 21-years and older to purchase and possess up to 30 grams of raw cannabis. The legislation also seeks to use tax revenue from the sale and purchase of marijuana to address past injustices done to communities that have been “most adversely affected by cannabis-related laws,” according to the bill.

The bill would also expunge convictions for people convicted of marijuana crimes in the state, meaning that as many as 750,000 people could have their cases expunged, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Employers would still be free to drug test employees under the bill.

Steans said in a press release on Wednesday that the bill is not just about letting stoners blaze up, but it’s about building a healthier and more just community.

“This plan keeps our children safe by prioritizing public safety, includes extensive restorative justice measures and brings in much-needed revenue for our state,” Steans said in the press release.

Eiron Cudaback, an assistant professor of health sciences at DePaul and a trained neuropharmacologist with expertise in cannabinoid research, said he is wary of what the drug’s legalization could look like given the lack of scientific research regarding its effects.

“It has historically been challenging for scientists to study the therapeutic value of cannabinoids — again, that’s not just THC, it’s any of the compounds derived from the marijuana plant — it has been particularly challenging to study them given the restrictions of the federal government,” Cudaback said.

Cudaback lives in Seattle and commutes to Chicago every week to teach at DePaul. He said that shortly after he took his position here, the state of Washington legalized recreational marijuana use via a public referendum. While Illinois’ bill will not passed this way, Cudaback said that the unexpected drawbacks of law that Washington saw might affect Illinoisans too.

“As people started to see what happens around you when you legalized it — growing operations sprouting up right next to your own residence, massive citations for homeless persons in the city limits for smoking in public because they don’t have a home to smoke it in — those kinds of things weren’t made available information to the public,” Cudaback said.

Xavier Perez, director of DePaul’s criminology department, said he felt similarly, arguing that while he believes the bill is a step in the right direction, it may not be doing enough for the minority communities, who are disproportionately charged for marijuana possession, as shown by statistics.

“It’s a good move forward for us to deal with the issues of mass incarceration, but unfortunately, I don’t know that it will have the structural change in the racism that is present in the criminal justice system,” Perez said. “It’s not going to change structural dynamics or the way the criminal justice system goes after certain groups — minority groups, the poor — for drug violations. I don’t see that having a significant change in our prison populations.”

When Chicago decriminalized the drug in 2016, the number of arrests went down, but people of color were ticketed most often. A Sun-Times investigation found that of the 94 people caught for petty marijuana possession in 2017 and the first four months of 2018, 76 were black, 16 were Hispanic and two were white.

“I still think that it’s going to be cheaper to purchase it from the street … there’s always going to be the need,” he said. “If you look at Washington, Colorado, California — the states that have legalized it so far —  there’s still an underground market, and unfortunately, in the underground market, people of color are predominately the ones being ticketed or arrested for it.”

DePaul students gathered to celebrate the passage of the bills on Monday, June 3.

The historic chapel of Cortelyou Commons was filled with people wearing marijuana-adorned clothing for the first annual Kush Expo at DePaul.

Dom Coronel, a member of the DePaul chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the group that organized the event, said that his group was given the run-around with the DePaul administration when organizing an event based around the consumption of the drug given the administration’s conservative sensibilities. But they ultimately prevailed, as long as the club could promise that no one would be partaking on DePaul’s property.

Coronel agreed with Gov. Pritzker’s estimation that the Illinois bill will be the most “equity centric” marijuana legalization bill in the country, but he said that if they really wanted to do some good, they would have gone even farther.

“In terms of restorative justice, expungement [of prior convictions] isn’t automatic,” Coronel said. “Up to 30 grams is automatic, but anything beyond that and you might have to get a lawyer. So there are a lot of things that are good, but there are a lot of things that may continue disproportionately impacting black and brown people.”

Alex Boutros, a DePaul alumna and community organizer who now works for Chicago Votes, touted the bill as one of the most progressive marijuana legalization bills in the entire world, and said she is glad that it is happening in her home state of Illinois. She said when she realized it was going to become a reality during the late-night floor vote in the state legislature, she was uplifted.

“We knew it was going to be a major push because that was the platform of J.B.,” Boutros said. “It became super real in the second half of the legislative session. You could tell that Rep. [Kelly] Cassady and Sen. Heather Steans were like, ‘We’re going to f—–g to do this.’ They were bosses.”

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