When Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act into law on Tuesday, Illinois became the first state to legalize a comprehensive adult-use marijuana market through its legislature, setting up what looks to be a booming industry in the state, while helping to assist communities of color that have been ravaged by the War on Drugs.
Starting on January 1st, Illinois residents over the age of 21 will be allowed to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, and adult visitors will be allowed to possess up to 15 grams. Medical marijuana patients will be allowed to grow up to five plants at home, though growing at home for social use will not be allowed. Cannabis flower that has under 35 percent THC will be taxed at 10 percent, products that contain over 35 percent THC (like vape oils and other concentrates) will be taxed at 25 percent, and cannabis-infused products will be taxed at 20 percent.
What’s most striking about this law is its projected impacts on minority communities. According to advocates, the racial justice provision in the bill will lead to the expungement of up to nearly 800,000 cannabis convictions, which have disproportionately affected people of color. In order to promote diversity in the largely white industry, the law creates a social equity program that will provide grants and loans to minority cannabis business owners. A quarter of the tax revenue will also go directly to aiding minority communities impacted by the War on Drugs through what’s being called the Restore, Reinvest and Renew program.
Heather Steans, an Illinois state senator who crafted the bill, says she’s very proud of the racial justice and racial equity aspects of it.
“We estimate that there are 770,000 records that are eligible for expungement. That’s more than every other state that’s legalized adult use combined,” Steans says. “We are also doing a lot to make sure we get diversity in the industry.”
Steans says that at least 20 percent of new licenses for social use sales will go to people of color, and there will be $30 million available to help minority business owners. Shanita Penny, president of the Oregon-based Minority Cannabis Business Association, says she’s optimistic these efforts will benefit many Illinois residents.
“I am hopeful that this thoughtful legislation coupled with resources and support, like the Cannabis Business Development Fund and the Restore, Reinvest, and Renew Program, improves the representation of minorities as business owners in the industry and reinvesting in disadvantaged communities,” Penny says. “It certainly goes further than what we’ve seen in other states and could be, as they promised, a new standard for equitable legalization.”
Penny says she’s happy with the fact so many criminal records are going to be expunged, but adds that there’s still more work to do. The law only allows expungement for those convicted of possessing up to 500 grams of cannabis, and she says those with convictions above that amount also deserve some reprieve.
“We need to provide resources and support to ensure those convictions are vacated as well,” she says.
Illinois decriminalized cannabis in 2016, but that doesn’t mean people stopped getting arrested over weed. A report from last year found that hundreds of people are still being arrested or ticketed per year in the city of Chicago, and 94% of those charged with petty marijuana possession between 2017 and 2018 were people of color. The expungement process should help undo some of the damage done by biased policing.
Another issue that has come up with this law relates to the debate over allowing Illinois residents to grow cannabis at home. Steans said the original bill allowed all adults to grow cannabis at home, but she received “pushback” from other members of Congress and law enforcement, so they compromised and made it so only medical patients could grow up to five plants at home. Many find growing their own cannabis more cost-effective, which is one reason advocates wanted to make this part of the law.
Dan Linn, the executive director of Illinois NORML, says law enforcement wasn’t the only group that pushed against this bill or aspects of it. He says the drug testing industry, abstinence-based anti-drug groups and some religious organizations fought the bill throughout the legislative process.
“I think compromising on allowing adults to cultivate cannabis at home is something that upset a lot of our supporters, but it was part of the legislative process, and you have to compromise sometimes,” says Linn. He expects that the state will approve growing cannabis at home for all adults in the next few years.
Only existing medical marijuana dispensaries will be getting licenses for the first year, so after the law goes into effect in January, those dispensaries will initially be the only locations to purchase recreational marijuana. He says that this might allow medical dispensaries to corner the market before other shops are able to open. Medical marijuana growers will also get the first chance to start growing cannabis for social use, as they will receive the first 150 licenses once they become available.
The law allows for some vertical integration, which typically means when a company both produces and distributes its products, but there are limits. Linn says medical marijuana companies were previously allowed to own three growing facilities and five dispensaries, and this new law allows a company to own three grows and 10 dispensaries. There is also a limit of one craft grower per company, which are growers who create more artisanal products.
The law does not create a statewide license for cannabis consumption lounges but does allow for municipalities to set them up if they choose to. Linn said he expects many municipalities will do so and that it will benefit those communities since both residents in legal states and cannabis tourists often struggle to find places to a legally consume cannabis.
A highly populated state in the middle of the Midwest legalization is sure to impact the region. Linn says he’s already spoken to organizers from Wisconsin who are planning to push harder on legalization now that Illinois has made it happen, and it seems likely other nearby states will be watching what happens in Illinois closely as they make up their minds about legalization. Steans says she hopes other states adopt Illinois’ racial justice and racial equity provisions when they craft their legalization bills.
Steans says Illinois has been an industry leader as a medical marijuana state, and she believes Illinois will be an even bigger player now that they’ve fully legalized. “I think Illinois is going to become a powerhouse in the cannabis industry,” Steans says.