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Public radio stations throughout Illinois joined forces to tackle the issue of marijuana as the state considers making recreational use legal.

Senate Votes For Legal Cannabis — House Vote Remains

The Illinois state Senate approved a proposal on Wednesday to legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 years and older beginning on January 1, 2020. 

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D - Olympia Fields) is one of the lead sponsors and focused heavily on criminal justice and social equity in the market. She called the proposal "historic." 

"This is the largest, most equity-centered bill with the most criminal justice reform in one piece of legislation in the country right now," she said. "And the world is watching." 

The measure includes an opportunity for individuals with low-level marijuana crimes to expunge their records through a pardon from Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Those with possession convictions of up to 30 grams will not need to initiate the process on their own, but for amounts of up to 500 grams can petition the court to vacate their conviction. 

The legislation also creates a social equity program that is intended to encourage minority involvement. The program gives access to grants and loans to assist in the burden of upfront costs for licenses and other fees accrued when participating in the cannabis market. 

With a roll call of 38-17, the measure received support from three of the Republicans in the chamber while two Democrats decided to vote "no." 

Rock Island state Sen. Neil Anderson is one of two Republican co-sponsors of the proposal. He said even though he was voting in favor, he personally is still against cannabis use. 

“I will continue to tell my kids that they should not smoke tobacco, they should not smoke cannabis and that is my job as a responsible parent," said Anderson. "But to those adults out there that want to use cannabis, as I’ve said before, freedom is freedom.”  

In an effort to pick up more support, the sponsors did make key changes to the original proposal that was rolled out earlier this month. One of those changes deals with the ability to grow cannabis at home. Initially, all adults could grow cannabis in their home but the new language narrows it to medical marijuana patients only. 

The latest bill also reduces the penalties for growing cannabis at home illegally. Previously a misdemeanor charge, growing up to five plants would now be a civil violation with a maximum penalty of $200. 

Those who spoke in opposition of the measure said they were concerned about the safety of kids and teens, as well as mental health and addiction issues associated with the drug. 

State Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) began by thanking the sponsors for their continued effort to earn support from opponents, but admitted that "sometimes there's just gaps that can't be bridged." He said he was concerned about "myths" being spread regarding cannabis legalization. One of those was that usage rates will decline. 

"That's not true," he said. "You don't have to believe me on that. You can simply go to the state of Colorado itself where usage among college age individuals has gone up since legalization." 

Politifact and the Better Government Association recently fact-checked state Rep. Kelly Cassidy's (D - Chicago) claim that fewer teens smoke cannabis after legalization. They concluded that was "mostly false." Cassidy responded with her own statement including statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed significant reductions in use from multiple states that have legalized. 

“To borrow from the BGA’s own designation, we rate their story as follows: ‘Mostly False'," the statement read. "The story contains particles of truth but ignores critical data that would have given the reader a more accurate impression’.”

Pritzker campaigned on the promise to legalize recreational cannabis and included $170 million dollars in next year's budget proposal from licencing fees for the program. In a statement he said: 

“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. Senators Steans and Hutchinson have done tremendous work to reach this point, and I encourage the House to take decisive action to make Illinois a national leader in equity and criminal justice reform.”

The measure needs to be approved by the House and signed by  Pritzker before becoming law. 

Jaclyn has an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a BS in History form Monmouth College. Prior to reporting, Jaclyn was a social science teacher and department chair at Greenfield High School. Previously, Jaclyn reported for WICS Newschannel 20 where she covered a variety of assignments including courts, politics, and breaking news. She also reported at Siouxland News in Sioux City Iowa, the shared CBS/Fox television newsroom. Her internships included WGN and Comcast SportsNet in Chicago.
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