Weed backers: State Senate passes legal pot bill, sends it to House

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Weed backers: State Senate passes legal pot bill, sends it to House

With just two days to go before adjournment, the Illinois Senate passed a marijuana legalization measure.

Medical marijuana grows in the vegetative room at Illinois Grown Medicine in Elk Grove Village, Monday morning, May 6, 2019.
 Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

With the clock ticking to adjournment, the Illinois Senate on Wednesday quickly passed a comprehensive measure to allow recreational marijuana use — moving the state one big step closer to legalization.

The Illinois Senate voted 38-17 to approve the legislation after about 40 minutes of debate. It must still pass the Illinois House.

Facing opposition from law enforcement groups and others, bill sponsors scaled back the expungement provisions in the measure and narrowed down home grow for just medical marijuana patients, among other changes.

The clock is winding down to adjournment and legalizing marijuana remains one of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s top priorities. Legislators on Thursday will likely take up the budget and capital bills, as well as a measure that would set the rates on the graduated income tax. It sets the stage for a House debate on legalizing marijuana, potentially, for Friday.

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown said the House will hold a committee hearing and a caucus to review the changes to the legislation.

“I think we’re familiar with the changes. I don’t know that he [Madigan] has any particular concerns. The changes ease some concerns that people have had,” Brown said. “The things you heard the most were home grown, and that’s been toned down, and I think the language dealing with expungement, having a prior conviction issue, has been modified.”

Pritzker in a statement urged the House “to take decisive action to make Illinois a national leader in equity and criminal justice reform.”

“Illinois is poised to become the first state in the nation that put equity and criminal justice reform at the heart of its approach to legalizing cannabis, and I’m grateful that the Senate has taken this important step with a bipartisan vote,” Pritzker said in a statement.

“More people are going to use and this is going to cause more hazards for the public, not less,” Righter, R-Mattoon, said. But his Republican colleague, state Sen. Jason Barickman, said he now supports the measure, in part because of additions protecting employers. He said it also gives people “more freedom of their choices.”

And bill sponsor state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said just one state that has legalized marijuana has seen an increase in teen use.

“It’s not something of course that we want teens to do … and the notion that you can prevent teens from doing this by simply ignoring that they currently are is what got us into this place,” Steans said. “This is where we are right now.”

“We can’t pretend that we don’t actually have cannabis smoking going on. We know we do. In Illinois, we estimate that about 800,000 people are using. Burying our heads in the sand about that does not improve the situation or the outcomes on this,” Steans said. “A different approach is going to have a much better outcome.”

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, said the measure is about much more than being able to buy cannabis.

“The most historic aspect of this is not just that it legalizes cannabis for adults but rather the extraordinary efforts it takes to reduce the harm caused by the failed war on marijuana and the communities it hurt the most,” said Hutchinson, who is also a bill sponsor.

Earlier Wednesday, the Illinois Senate Executive Committee voted 13-3 to approve the latest tweaks to the bill. Changes include allowing only medical marijuana patients to have up to five plants in a home; and scaling back expungements. Convictions dealing with amounts of cannabis up to 30 grams will be dealt with through the governor’s clemency process, which does not require individuals to initiate the process. For amounts of 30 to 500 grams, the state’s attorney or an individual can petition the court to vacate the conviction.

The original language would have automatically expunged an estimated 800,000 convictions. The revised language means those with convictions for cannabis possession convictions under 30 grams can get pardoned by the governor. States attorneys would then be able to petition the court to expunge the record. A judge would direct law enforcement agencies and county clerks to clear their record. This only applies to those convicted with no other violent crime associated with the charge. And it only applies for convictions that have taken place when the bill takes effect on Jan. 1.

“It’s only a one-time look back,” Steans said after committee. “That’s an important point.”

State Sen. Heather Steans
State Sen. Heather Steans urges senators to vote to legalize recreational marijuana on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. 
BlueRoomStream screen image.

Designed to address concerns about impaired driving, new language would also add a DUI Task Force led by Illinois State Police to examine best practices. Those would include examining emergency technology and roadside testing, Steans said during the Illinois Senate Executive Committee.

Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell also testified that a social equity loan program was upped to $30 million, from $20 million. He said the expungement changes were made in conjunction with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, other states attorneys and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields; state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, and Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell. 
Answering senators’ questions about the cannabis bill are, left to right, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields; state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, and Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell, on Wednesday.
 BlueRoomStream screen image.

Barickman, R-Bloomington, commended sponsors for going back to the table to set a “gold standard” for workplace standards. New changes also include strengthening language to ensure employers can maintain a zero tolerance drug policy, should legalization happen.

Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said during the committee that home grow still remains an issue, even if it’s limited to medical marijuana patients since the program is expanding: “We don’t have access. We won’t be able to tell who is doing what.”

The conflict of interest ban was added after it was reported that state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, was involved in marketing and investment seminars and leading a company that intended to obtain license to grow and sell marijuana. Van Pelt was removed as a sponsor of the bill on May 15. The Sun-Times reported that Van Pelt and her involvement in the business is being investigated by the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. And while Van Pelt told the Sun-Times that she wouldn’t be involved in shaping the legalization bill, she did not commit to abstaining from votes on the measure.

Van Pelt was not present during the vote.

Opponents of the wide-ranging bill had free rein to voice their displeasure at a lengthy Senate committee hearing in Springfield on May 15 — and they aired concerns about everything from how law enforcement will measure impairment in drivers to which marijuana offenses should be expunged to whether or not weed causes erectile dysfunction.

The bill’s criminal and social justice considerations includes plans to expunge marijuana convictions and allow those with pot convictions to work in the legal cannabis industry. The measure, as passed, also creates a designation for “social equity applicants” hoping to obtain licenses and provide minority-owned businesses support.

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