SPRINGFIELD — Illinois would enact one of the nation's most comprehensive plans for expunging marijuana-related convictions if a bill pending in the General Assembly and supported by Gov. J.B. Pritzker becomes law.
Out of the 10 states that have legalized recreational marijuana, only California has a plan similar to Senate Bill 7 in Illinois to streamline the scrubbing of records for large numbers of marijuana convictions, according to Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Illinois would go farther than California in at least one respect when it comes to helping people clear records and reduce barriers to employment, education and housing, O'Keefe said.
The current proposal in the Illinois General Assembly would allow for expungement of records involving convictions involving possession of far more than 1 ounce of marijuana. The bill would legalize possession of not more than 1 ounce.
Among convictions eligible for expungement in SB 7 would be misdemeanor possession of up to 3.5 ounces of cannabis and Class 4 felony possession of up to 17.6 ounces, or more than 1 pound.
On the other hand, a California bill signed into law last year sets in motion an automatic system of downgrading convictions and expunging marijuana conviction records, but only involving up to 1 ounce of marijuana, the legal limit authorized by voters in that state in 2016.
The broad level of expungements offered in the Illinois legislation has been one of the most controversial parts of the bill, which is expected to be amended by its sponsors this week. No votes have been taken yet in the Illinois Senate or House.
Erasing records of past convictions for conduct that would remain illegal after legalization "doesn't seem to make sense," said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, which opposes the bill.
But the bill's sponsors and O'Keefe defended the concept to repair damage done by the nationwide "war on drugs," which resulted in disproportionately high levels of arrests and convictions of blacks compared with other ethnic and racial groups.
O'Keefe said there are indications other states will pursue the Illinois bill's approach as legal sales of vast amounts of marijuana proliferate and create more moneymaking opportunities for wealthy entrepreneurs.
"The racial-justice component is becoming more a part of the national discussion," said O'Keefe, whose employer describes itself as a not-for-profit marijuana policy advocacy and education organization.
"People shouldn't be branded for life for conduct that others are making millions of dollars from now," she said.
Sen. Heather Steans, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring SB 7 in the Senate, said dealing with the expungement issue will be important to ensure passage in the General Assembly.
Steans said after a three-hour hearing on the legislation last week that she plans to make changes to the bill this week in hopes of securing votes and clarifying issues raised during the hearing. She said she was aware of concerns by the Illinois State's Attorneys Association that the proposed expungement system may be illegal under the Illinois Constitution unless the governor issued a mass pardon for the offenses.
Pritzker, a Democrat, hasn't commented on whether he is willing to use his broad pardoning authority in concert with the legislation.
This week’s episode of Capitol News Illinois’ podcast, Capitol Cast, is a roundtable discussion with reporters about marijuana legalization, s…
Steans also heard concerns at the hearing that the bill, as currently worded, would allow for swift expungement of future convictions for marijuana-related misdemeanors and felony offenses that would remain as crimes under Illinois law.
Steans wouldn't say Friday what changes are being considered for the bill regarding expungements.
"We're looking at how we can make it work but still allow people to clear their records," she said.
She added that clearing felony convictions would allow more people to work in the state's legal marijuana industry -- a goal of hers and the bill's other sponsors.
Some have estimated that up to 800,000 people could benefit from the proposed expungements, which are part of what Steans and her lawmaker colleagues called the bill's "social equity" benefits.
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Sales of legal pot eventually are expected to generate up to $500 million for state government annually. The bill says one-fourth of the money, or $125 million, would go to a "Restoring Our Communities Fund" for grants to parts of the state harmed economically by the drug war.
The other social-equity component of the bill includes a low-interest loan program and other efforts to spur minority ownership among dispensaries, cultivation centers, processors and "craft growers."
Such tactics are admirable but aren't guaranteed to change a U.S. industry owned and controlled almost exclusively by white men, said Adam Orens, founding partner of the Denver-based Marijuana Policy Group, a consulting business.
No state has done a good job at promoting social equity through marijuana policy, Steans said. But she said no state except Illinois has developed such an in-depth plan.
"I think we're going to set the standard for being a model on the social-equity piece," she said.
Nine of the 10 states that have legalized marijuana (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) accomplished it through voter initiatives of the sort that aren't allowed under the Illinois Constitution. Vermont did it through legislation.
Alaska and Michigan haven't put in place any path to expunge records. But Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has said she plans to use her clemency powers to free some of the thousands serving time in state prison for marijuana-related convictions. She also says she wants an expungement system put into place.
A Washington state bill recently signed into law would allow people to apply to have convictions wiped away for misdemeanors before 2012, when legalization was approved.
Some of the convictions could involve possession of more than the current legal limit of 1 ounce of cannabis, said Aaron Sherman, a spokesman for Washington Senate Democrats.
Colorado, which authorized adult use and sales of cannabis through a 2012 statewide legalization vote that paved the way for sales beginning in early 2014, hasn't passed any laws dealing with expungement. District attorneys in Boulder County and Denver created programs on their own over the past year to invalidate convictions and seal records involving the legal limit of between 1 and 2 ounces of marijuana.
"We did it because it's a matter of fundamental fairness," said Boulder County assistant district attorney Ken Kupfner.
Neither program has attracted much interest.
Since early 2019, only 11 people qualified for Boulder County's "Moving on from Marijuana" program out of the 23 who applied.
Kupfner estimated that hundreds of people convicted of marijuana offenses could qualify for the program if they applied.
In Denver, 273 people applied to have convictions vacated, and 65 were granted, according to Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for the Denver DA's office. She estimated that at least 10,000 people are potentially eligible for Denver's "Turning Over a New Leaf" program.
The weak interest isn't surprising when clearing records isn't automatic and people need to be both aware of the programs and have time to apply, said Shawn Coleman, a marijuana industry lobbyist in Colorado.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, one of four lawmakers guiding SB 7, said she wants Illinois to take a more comprehensive approach when legalizing cannabis. She is working with Steans and state Reps. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria.
Hutchinson, president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the bill is the result of "the most robust, comprehensive debate about this in advance of legalization that has happened in this country."
Luke Niforatos, senior adviser at Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Virginia-based group that is fighting marijuana legalization in Illinois, said efforts to legalize and regulate the drug so far have been "the opposite of social justice."
"It is totally a white man's game," he said of the legal marijuana industry.
He pointed to an analysis by the Denver Post that found marijuana businesses often clustered in Denver's poorer, minority neighborhoods.
Steans said the regulated growth envisioned under her bill for the recreational-marijuana industry would prevent low-income neighborhoods from filling up with dispensaries.
Gordon-Booth said there is cynicism among the public that the bill's tools to achieve social equity won't work, but she said she has faith in the bill's potential. Gordon-Booth said she, Steans, Hutchinson and Cassidy will monitor its impact after passage and push for adjustments, if necessary.
"You have four moms at the table who are all friends and are not going to leave this issue anytime soon," Gordon-Booth said.