Illinois Lawmakers Consider Home Grow and Expungement Changes to Cannabis Legalization Bill

The Illinois Senate Executive Committee listened to about three hours of testimony Wednesday from those for and against a measure that would legalize the adult-use of cannabis. The hearing ended without a vote, and the bill’s primary sponsor and a representative of the governor’s office said they would consider making changes to incorporate concerns before the bill moves forward.

How far senators supportive of the bill would go in making changes to the measure—which was unveiled by Governor J.B. Pritzker a little more than a week ago—was unclear. But law enforcement and prosecutors’ concerns over provisions that would allow residents to grow up to five plants at home and the process by which records related to cannabis convictions would be automatically expunged were being evaluated, the bill’s supporters said.

Mitchell Davis, who sits on the board of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, warned lawmakers that they were setting up a difficult situation for law enforcement when it comes to home grown cannabis. “There is no way of enforcing those things and no way of tracking it,” he said.

Representative Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat who is the bill’s chief supporter in the Illinois House, previously told Cannabis Wire that her brother-in-law’s quality of life was improved because of cannabis when he suffered from cancer, and she wants other patients who may not be able to leave their home to have easy access. She said she knew the provision would be controversial but hopes it can remain in the bill.

There was some confusion over a portion of the bill that would automatically expunge misdemeanor and low-level felony cannabis convictions, usually crimes related to those charged by police with possessing or delivering up to 500 grams of the drug. But because the bill only legalizes possession up to 30 grams, Deputy Governor Christian Mitchell was asked whether future charges of more than 30 grams would be automatically expunged as well. (The implication was that people could openly flout the 30-gram maximum if their charges would later be expunged.)

“We’ve heard criticisms of this provision,” Mitchell told senators. “We are looking to see if there is a way we can come to some compromise on this.”

There was also a discussion about whether the legislature could legally order automatic expungements of cannabis-related charges, as the power to issue pardons sits with the governor. Mitchell disagreed with that interpretation. “The legislature can mandate that a court expunge a record,” Mitchell said. “That said, we’re very open to other ways to streamline this process.”

The day’s most heated exchange came between Illinois’ NAACP state president, Teresa Haley, and Chicago Democrat Senator Kimberly Lightford. Haley, who repeatedly said “say no to weed, plant that seed,” said, “I am tired of legislators again getting rich on the back of poor people.”

Lightford said, “I think your comment is inappropriate,” to which Haley replied, “I think your response is inappropriate,” before the committee chairman interrupted them.

Other witnesses discussed the effect on youth use and the debate over whether long-term or heavy use of cannabis causes psychosis, something that has become hotly debated nationally in recent months and where there is some disagreement among academics and researchers who have studied the subject.

Still, Albert Mensah, a physician, said he wanted to warn lawmakers about cannabis use. He testified that he was regularly seeing men who had become impotent and suffered mental illness because of cannabis. “I don’t like seeing young men who are schizophrenic and impotent brought to me by their fathers,” he said. “They thought marijuana was benign. Marijuana is not benign.”

Others in the medical community who testified disagreed with that assessment.  

Republican Senator Jason Barickman suggested that some of the tax revenue derived from the legal sale of cannabis go toward communities affected by the opioid crisis. One of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Toi Hutchinson, said lawmakers should keep in mind one of the bill’s primary goals, which is to benefit communities where arrests for cannabis were rampant and affected generations.

“That is very different from the people affected by the war on drugs,” Hutchinson said of communities affected by the opioid epidemic. “I want to make sure we don’t lose that nexus.”

Senator Heather Steans, a Democrat and the bill’s chief sponsor, explained that the bill’s Restoring Our Communities grant program, which would receive 25% of tax revenue derived from legal cannabis sales, would allow for local communities that qualify to apply for grants for programs including violence prevention, employment help, and those that allow disadvantaged business owners to take part in the new cannabis industry. “It’s most clear at the community level to address what they need to move forward,” Steans said.

Republican Senator Dale Righter seized on testimony from a school guidance counselor who said that students felt that cannabis is OK to use because it would soon be legal in Illinois.

“Sometimes we forget that kids still look at adults to set examples,” Righter said. “When we say it’s OK, at least some kids are going to take some indication from that.”

Others argued that public awareness—like those contemplated in the bill around pregnant women who smoke or use alcohol—have been effective in convincing the public that legal doesn’t mean harmless.

A tally of witnesses for and against submitted by potential witnesses, which is often looked to in Illinois as one indicator of a bill’s support, showed that 1,172 opposed the bill versus 556 in support as of late Wednesday.

The group Smart Approaches to Marijuana has been organizing extensively in Illinois, and group president Kevin Sabet encouraged the group to “keep it up.”

It isn’t clear when the bill will come back to the committee for a vote. Proponents are hoping to pass the measure before Illinois’ session ends at the end of the month.

More Illinois Lawmakers Consider Home Grow and Expungement Changes to Cannabis Legalization Bill