Illinois Kicks off Legalization the Right Way, With Pardons

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Wednesday was the first of January, and in the current era, another New Year almost always means another new state where recreational cannabis is legal.

2020 was Illinois’s turn, and for the most part, everything went to script, following the routine established in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, and (most) of the other 10 states that have legalized small amounts of recreational cannabis for adults 21 and over, and permitted said adults to purchase legal weed in stores. (More than three years after its citizens legalized, we’re still waiting on Maine to open a recreational dispensary.)

Illinois hit all the predictable notes. Long lines of eager cannabis customers in the chilly predawn, queued up outside the nearest of the state’s three dozen dispensaries (and some would-be purchasers taking one look and turning back around for home, or for the underground market). VIPs making the first celebratory and heavily documented purchases — in a mild twist, here’s an actual elected official, Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, picking up some edibles at Cresco Labs’s dispensary in Chicago — and then a flurry of news items totaling the first day of legal sales: 77,128 purchases, for a total of just shy of $3.2 million worth of product sold.

Isn’t all this just great? Once the novelty of a first purchase has worn off, the answer is, “well, maybe.” It remains to be seen if sales will hit the ambitious goals set by lawmakers and regulators; if roughly 36 dispensaries, most of which are concentrated in the Chicagoland area, is sufficient to quell underground market demand, in a state with more than 12 million people (reader: it almost certainly is not); if Illinois’s equity programs will get off the ground or if one of the most capitalized cannabis markets will benefit only a select few. But what was pretty good, and somewhat different from the other states that preceded Illinois, was what happened the night before — when 11,000 cannabis convictions were wiped from the books.

One of marijuana legalization’s central selling points is justice, as in recognizing that decades of low-level cannabis arrests did nothing but fill prisons and wreck lives and communities at great economical and societal cost — and that “undoing” all that, somehow, is in the interest of justice. A great flaw in other states’ legalization schemes is that this justice was not automatic, or guaranteed, requiring district attorneys to hire coders to write cannabis-crime-clearing algorithms.

Fulfilling a campaign promise made by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Illinois legalized cannabis via the Legislature rather than a voter initiative. Among Pritzker’s promises was that any legalization would also involve a clearing of cannabis offenders’ criminal records. And true to his word, Prtizker rang in the New Year on Dec. 31 by issuing 11,000 pardons.

“We are ending the 50-year-long war on cannabis,” Pritzker said in a statement, as per the AP. “We are restoring rights to many tens of thousands of Illinoisans. We are bringing regulation and safety to a previously unsafe and illegal market. And we are creating a new industry that puts equity at its very core.”

That’s just the start. According to state figures, there are more than 116,000 convictions eligible for pardons under Illinois’s new law permitting possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis flower in the state. Another 34,000 people who were found guilty in a previous era of possessing more than 30 grams need to actively file paperwork to have their records cleared — though if the local district attorney’s office wants to clear their own books, they can — and in a troubling quirk, any cannabis crime that also involves a violent crime is not eligible for expungement.

So there’s room for improvement, and much work to be done.  Still, the fact that a nod to justice happened before any sales occurred sets Illinois apart and also sets an encouraging precedent: Maybe pardons should precede profit, everywhere legalization is considered? Lawmakers and advocates pondering why legalization worked in Illinois — or at least worked long enough to become law — and failed in New Jersey and New York should take heed.

TELL US, does cannabis legalization without pardons make sense to you?