Photo: Richard Vogel/AP Photo

Legalizing marijuana is a social justice issue. Can Illinois get it right?

CHICAGOTo Kelly Cassidy, it feels inevitable.

A Democrat state representative for Illinois’ 14th District—which includes neighborhoods on the city’s northern edge and a southern slice of Evanston, all abutting Lake Michigan—Cassidy has served through societal sea changes before. The push for the recreational legalization of marijuana feels, to her, a little like the fight for gay marriage, an issue wherein public demand has outstripped political will.

“This is the fundamental philosophy of my governance work,” Cassidy said one warm but windy spring afternoon in her office. “People evolve more quickly than politicians.”

To that end, Cassidy and Democrat State Senator Heather Steans have been diligently preparing their respective recreational marijuana bills—HB 2353 and SB 318—in anticipation of Illinois joining the ranks of legalized states.

With ardently anti-legalization governor Bruce Rauner up for re-election in the fall, Cassidy and Steans are currently busy compiling amendments and meeting with stakeholders from around the state—including for, against and agnostic—to beef up their bill, which is more like a concept in its current form. The amendments will put “meat on the bones” of the first bill, including the regulatory structure, revenue and how the industry will grow—in scale and in soil. If passed, municipalities in Illinois will be empowered to enact their own standards for regulation, much like they do in California, which legalized marijuana in 2018.

“Most importantly to us, it talks a great deal about the social justice components,” Cassidy said, “the undoing the harm of the War on Drugs, that no state has yet done right.”


Cassidy sees the social justice potential of the bill as a three legged stool: 1. Criminal justice reform via re-sentencing and restoration; 2. Access to the industry, meaning rich white people will hopefully not reap the rewards of a trade that has people of color crowded into prisons; and 3. Reinvestment in the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.

To that end, the bill will contain several provisions that look to take actionable steps to advance social justice and reverse the damage done during decades of treating marijuana as a schedule I narcotic.

“Anybody who’s been convicted of up to a class four felony for cannabis can apply to have their conviction expunged,” if the bills passes, said Rose Ashby, the field director on cannabis legislation—or as she joking calls it, “herder of the cannabis cats”—for Steans and Cassidy.

Pass the cookies. Celebrating 4/20 in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, never mind those pesky rules on public consumption. Josh Edelson/AP Photo

Essentially, the bill will provide an avenue for people who will have suddenly found their crimes now legal. Furthermore, the legislation will lift restrictions on people with marijuana convictions, who’ve been previously barred from working in Illinois’ medical marijuana.

More licensing options aim provide access to people of color and other marginalized groups looking to enter the industry. “There are a lot of barriers to anybody who isn’t just a rich guy with deep pockets and friends with deep pockets to be able to enter this industry,” Ashby said by phone.

Under the current medical marijuana structure, the state offers two types of licenses: cultivator and dispensary, both of which require a significant capital investment. By offering different levels of entry, like a transporter license or a smaller, “craft” growing license, they hope to make the market more accessible. Businesses looking to enter the industry would need to submit diversity plans, as well. Ashby said that the lawmakers are looking into the Restoring our Communities, or R.O.C., program, which will provide state funds to underserved communities. 

“We need to be focusing on what’s really going to make our community safer,” Cassidy said. “And if we address this right, if we do this right, we create a sustained, well-regulated market, we will undercut the street market, and that’s what’s funding the cartels; that is what’s making our neighborhoods less safe.”

The question of whether or not legal weed helps stop black market growth is a thorny one. The US Attorney for Oregon, Billy Williams, claims the state is over-producing, with the surplus being sold somewhere, and The Oregonian obtained a state police report last summer claiming the state is a major producer of black-market weed for states where marijuana is illegal. The current patchwork of legalization creates uneven markets in close proximity to each other, a situation screaming for smugglers.

An advantage for Illinois is its ability to learn from the successes and failures of other states that have already made the jump. On a trip to Colorado, Cassidy, Steans and their Illinois contingent sought out advice from then-Boulder D.A. Stan Garnett. Among their findings: if pot is taxed too heavily, making it cheaper on the streets, the black market will still flourish.

“It’s important to really pay attention to pricing,” said Garnett, recently retired and now at the Denver law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. “One of the benefits of legalization is that it weakens or eliminates, depending on where you are, the black market in marijuana. And what everyone will agree is that black markets are bad.”

The cash generated by legal marijuana sales is a tempting carrot, but for Cassidy, it’s not the main benefit of the bill. “On a list of 10 reasons to do it, it’s 10,” she said. According to Cassidy, the estimates for a legal weed market in Illinois are $350-700 million in tax revenue, an estimate she considers conservative.

“The money isn’t a solution,” Cassidy said. “It does allow us some opportunities. It allows us opportunities to finally do right by the folks who actually need drug intervention and treatment.” The bill earmarks tax money for drug services and better drug education in schools.


Illinois Dem. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy says legalizing marijuana is about "undoing the harm of the War on Drugs." Seth Perlman File/AP Photo

Much of the political opposition to legalization in Illinois can be chalked up as a front of the Culture War, Cassidy says, with politicians who have more conservative constituents, mainly in the south of the state and the Chicagoland suburbs, playing to their base. Garnett sees the amount of money currently wrapped up in weed interdiction as a challenge, causing an institutional reaction to salvage the status quo.

“When you talk to the front line folks [in law enforcement], they acknowledge that the sky will not fall for this,” Cassidy said. “But when you talk to leadership, and organized leadership in particular, the chiefs or the sheriffs, some are neutral, but they’re never going to be advocates for this.”

Among the most organized opposition is Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a Virginia based non-profit with a full time, paid staff working to slow down or stop legalization and ensure that something akin to a new tobacco industry does not get created just as the American public is finally brushing off the ash of the old one.

“We want to talk about it in a way that says we don’t want to throw people in prison for marijuana, but the answer to that is not legalization,” Kevin Sabet, the president and CEO of SAM, said by phone. “And too often, I think the answer presented is, ‘Well, if you’re into social justice, and you don’t want to put people in prison, then legalization is the way to go.’ And there’s no other discussion about any other policies.”

SAM’s concerns are driven by science, not social convention. Sabet believes that there is a knowledge gap between what people think they know about weed and what science is saying.

“We have 22,000 peer reviewed articles about marijuana, the pros and the cons,” Sabet said. “We’re not saying we have a final verdict on everything. What I am saying is that the picture which is being painted by science, which that THC is harmful to the brain—especially up until age 30, but even after that—that it impairs motor skills, that it hurts cognitive development, memory, that it is linked in a very strong way, especially high potency marijuana, with mental illness—those things are real.”

The National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive report, “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids,” marijuana in January, with a release noting that the committee parsed over 10,000 scientific abstracts to come to its conclusions. While it did find evidence supporting a link between cannabis use and an increased risk of various mental health disorders, including schizophrenia and social anxiety disorders, the same release stated that “there is limited evidence to suggest that cannabis use is related to impairments in subsequent academic achievement and education as well as social relationships and social roles.”

SAM does acknowledge that there are medical uses for marijuana, and Sabet believes those uses should be studied and developed.

The organization also looks to hold the marijuana industry accountable. “If somebody wants to grow a plant in their backyard, that’s way different than Madison Avenue commercializing THC gummy bears, which is what they are doing,” Sabet said.

What SAM and Illinois’ legalization-championing polls both agree on is that the human cost of the War on Drugs has been too much. Despite their antipodean goals, both sides agree that the era of mass incarceration for marijuana needs to end.

The bill will likely be called during the state’s next legislative session in January of 2019. According to Ashby, they expect to have the bipartisan support necessary in both houses to pass the bill next year, a chance which would be bolstered if Gov. Bruce Rauner loses his seat this November, putting a more marijuana-friendly pol, perhaps Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker, in the governor’s office. Illinois residents seem ready; according to a March 2017 poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, 66 percent of voters in the state favor recreational legalization, including 52 percent of Republicans. If their desires are reflected in Springfield, the state may finally begin winding down its drug war.

“It’s not a partial corrective, it is beginning the work of repairing the harm done by the War on Drugs,” Cassidy says of her and Steans’ bills. “One hundred percent.”

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