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Up in Smoke: The Broken Promise of Illinois’ Marijuana Legalization Policy

Last week, Illinois lawmakers closed the spring session on a tone of flagrant self-congratulation for what has been heralded by the fawning statehouse press corp as a series of progressive legislative victories. Meanwhile, in home districts across the state, communities of color are left to reckon with a disheartening array of broken promises on the part of their elected representatives.

In order to fast track the new governor’s politically measured policy agenda, legislators gutted crucial bill language and cast aside dozens of key proposals that would have advanced racial equity and justice in Illinois. The marijuana legalization bill, which now awaits Governor Pritzker’s signature, emerges as perhaps the most tragic of these squandered opportunities.

Early this year, Illinois lawmakers pledged to enact the nation’s most racially equitable cannabis legalization policy as a means to remedy the devastating impacts of the war on drugs, which was waged against communities of color for decades. However, the bill passed by the general assembly last Friday falls disastrously short of this guarantee. Not only does the legislation fail to enact retroactive resentencing for cannabis related offenses or secure equitable access to the industry, it also offers no protections for employees and tenants who lawfully consume marijuana.

The most calamitous blow to Illinois’ marijuana legalization policy, however, was lawmakers’ decision to slash a key statute that provided for the automatic expungement of certain cannabis related convictions. This measure would have removed unnecessary barriers to employment, education and housing for hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans. Succumbing to the outsized political influence of the state and local police unions, as well as the Illinois State's Attorneys Association (ISAA), legislators betrayed the interests of their constituents and replaced the automatic expungement clause with an all but impassible path to justice. The new legislation sets forth a cumbersome plan for individual record clearing that is subject to the approval of the governor, state police, prison review boards and local state’s attorneys. As a result, only a fraction of the nearly 800,000 Illinoisans facing barriers related to low level marijuana convictions will have their records cleared.

In passing the marijuana legalization bill, the numerous concessions lawmakers made on issues related to racial equity were not the result of constituent objections. In fact, criminal justice reform, records expungement and racial equity poll favorably in Illinois. Rather, the devastating rollbacks were undertaken in response to the vocal opposition of politically powerful police unions and the ISAA. These groups have campaigned tirelessly to propagate a flawed theory of public safety that calls for aggressive law enforcement and draconian sentencing practices. This misguided approach has only served to systematically undermine safety and liberation for communities of color. In order to achieve racial equity and justice in Illinois, lawmakers must prioritize the concerns of local constituents over those of well-funded, politically influential interest groups.

With the governor now expected to sign the marijuana legislation in the coming days, the Workers Center for Racial Justice (WCRJ) demands that Pritzker grant a blanket pardon and authorize the automatic expungement of all cannabis related convictions resulting in a Class 4 felony or below.

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