“If we could empower the businesses, it’s going to mean more revenue, and we’re going to realize what we intended for the [cannabis legalization] law to do. And that is increase employment, develop communities, reduce crime in the state.”
By Nike Schoonover, Capitol News Illinois
Illinois House Democrats announced the formation of a cannabis working group Thursday that will aim to steer the burgeoning industry’s expansion in a business-friendly way while still satisfying the equity goals of the landmark 2019 legalization law.
The group is led by Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, who has sponsored numerous cannabis-related bills and is an outspoken advocate for racial equity.
The working group’s main priority, according to Ford, is to make sure individuals who have invested in the newly-created industry are successful. A part of that is to address the disproportionate impact the war on drugs had on communities of color, particularly when it comes to cannabis-related arrests.
According to the ACLU, Black people in Illinois were 7.5 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis-related offenses prior to the state’s decriminalization of the drug in 2016.
The same law that legalized recreational cannabis use in 2019 also made individuals previously charged with minor cannabis offenses eligible to have their records expunged. At the end of 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) announced 492,129 cannabis-related convictions had been expunged and 9,219 low-level cannabis convictions had been pardoned.
The recreational cannabis law was also designed to give “social equity” applicants—or those whose ownership consists of minorities, people with drug convictions or individuals hailing from disproportionately impacted areas—easier access to new dispensary licenses.
“Our goal was to make sure that those communities that were hardest hit by the war on drugs actually were able to benefit from this industry by having the ability to open up in those communities and hire people from those communities,” Ford said in an interview.
The #cannabis industry is profitable and should be diverse @RepChrisWelch organized the House Cannabis working group to focus effectively. I am assigned to this workgroup with my colleague, business and diversity champion State Rep. @lashawnfordjobs https://t.co/esrZrWaU8k
— Marcus C. Evans, Jr. (@Repevans33) February 25, 2023
Ford was the sponsor of House Bill 1443 in the previous General Assembly, a measure that created 110 additional “social equity” dispensary licenses beyond the initial 75 created by the original legalization law.
Over 30 cannabis-related bills have already been filed in the current General Assembly which began in January, addressing areas including licensing, distribution of cannabis tax revenue and the expungement of past offenses. The working group will comb through these measures to more effectively address the industry’s most pertinent issues.
Illinois recorded a record-high $1.5 billion of recreational cannabis sales in Fiscal Year 2022, generating about $445 million in tax revenue. Under law, 25 percent of the taxes collected from recreational cannabis sales are to go to economically distressed communities or those impacted by the war on drugs. In Fiscal Year 2022, about $115 million in tax revenue went to the state’s General Revenue Fund.
Beyond an equity focus, Ford said the working group will also aim to make state policy more accommodating to the industry from a business perspective.
“We have to make sure that we legislate with the industry because they are the investors,” Ford said. “If we could empower the businesses, it’s going to mean more revenue, and we’re going to realize what we intended for the [cannabis legalization] law to do. And that is increase employment, develop communities, reduce crime in the state.”
Ford is joined on the working group by Assistant Majority Leader Marcus Evans, D-Chicago; Assistant Majority Leader Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora; Assistant Majority Leader Bob Rita, D-Blue Island; Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview; Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago; and Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield.
They’ll work with other lawmakers, state agencies, businesses and associations that work directly with the cannabis industry.
One of the involved organizations is the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, a statewide trade association for cannabis businesses.
The association’s legislative priorities include re-implementing curbside pickup and drive-thru services after pandemic-era measures expired, decoupling Illinois’ cannabis tax code from the federal tax code, and extending the right to work in the medical cannabis industry for those who have previous cannabis-related convictions.
“Currently, the recreational statute allows individuals with previous drug convictions to gain access to the cannabis industry,” Pamela Althoff, executive director at the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, said in an interview. “That is prohibited in the compassionate and medical statute. We’d like to see both of them mirrored.”
The Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit that advocates for cannabis-related reform, has their own priorities for the legislative session, including expanding support for the craft grow industry, creating a singular cannabis oversight commission to streamline cannabis programs, and creating licenses for clubs and lounges so people other than homeowners are able to legally consume cannabis.
“The goal is moving away from having 13-plus state agencies who are not talking to each other,” Peter Contos, deputy director of the coalition, said in an interview. “We need one cannabis body who just does all the work, similar to what the state did with the liquor commission.”
Evans and Ford have both introduced bills—House Bills 1436 and 1498—to create a cannabis oversight commission. Contos said the coalition is currently trying to work with both lawmakers to reach an agreement on the legislation.
Contos added they’re excited to be involved with the working group because it shows there’s a concerted effort to continue cannabis-related reforms.
“We have a long way to go in Illinois to get back to the goals we set a few years ago when we legalized [cannabis] but this is definitely the first step we need to take,” Contos said.