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How Illinois became the first state legislature to legalize marijuana sales

Illinois state Sens. Heather Steans (D), center, and Toi Hutchinson (D) celebrate after the Illinois Senate votes on its bill to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/AP)
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Ten states have legalized recreational marijuana use, most through ballot initiatives. On Friday, Illinois took things one step further, becoming the first state legislature to pass a bill legalizing the sale and possession of it. (In 2018, Vermont lawmakers legalized possession only.)

The Illinois bill is notable for its attempts to wrap in significant criminal justice reform. Karen O’Keefe, with the Marijuana Policy Project, says it has a “very broad” component expunging people’s criminal records for doing what will soon be legal in Illinois. Additionally, would-be marijuana vendors in high-poverty, high-conviction neighborhoods will get preference in their applications. Proceeds from taxes and revenue will be reinvested in communities hit hard by marijuana convictions. (Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) is expected to sign the bill, making Illinois the 11th state where marijuana is legal for recreational use.)

The Fix spoke to state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D), a leading pro-legalization voice in the legislature’s black caucus, about how she advocated for the bill against a significant backdrop of skepticism within the black community. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Fix: What kind of reservations did your black colleagues have about this?

Hutchinson: There are a lot of us who have a fair and honest amount of cynicism, considering what cannabis did to our communities in the criminal justice space. It’s like: “Okay, so now you’re making money, you want to do this? Where was all this wonderful goodwill for criminal justice reform when we needed this the most?”

That is an honest reaction, it is an earned reaction, and there is part of me that understands totally and agrees 100 percent. Our opioid crisis, when it was just heroin with black communities, there was no care and mental health services. It wasn’t a public health crisis. It was a straight-up criminal issue: You locked all the junkies away.

So there were people who were like: “Why should I get involved in this?”

The Fix: It sounds as if black communities need to proactively pull up a seat at the table in legalization debates; they’re not automatically included.

Hutchinson: Absolutely. There is no way in the world we can normalize and legalize this activity across the country and allow folks to codify the inequities that exist. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t take a thing that has done so much damage and so much harm, and then allow folks to make millions of dollars on it without handling that. No. No, absolutely not.

We may not get everything we want, but we got a seat at the table every single time.

There are still people in the country who are sitting in jail and sitting in prisons dealing with the lifetime impact of the war on drugs. So this is a start. We are really hoping this stance catches fire. I hope people realize you can’t do one [legalization] without the other [criminal justice reform].

The Fix: Why was passing this through the legislature so significant?

Hutchinson: What it allowed us to do is insert really important conversations into the mix. In a ballot measure, it’s a paragraph. You are asking: “Do you think we should tax and regulate it like alcohol?” That is a simple question to ask. It’s very complicated to ask: “How do we do that?”

So the fact we put in a deliberate process so that our equities were at the center of every conversation — from how licensing would be, to what expungement would look like, to vendors — that was so important, because we got to put those topics in the mix. We were very clear that it wasn’t happening without those.

I don’t even pretend that this is the end. I think this means the work just starts. Because we have to rebuild the communities that were disproportionally impacted and that need to share in the ability to grow in the industry. That is only fair. We bore the brunt of the worst of it.

The Fix: What moment in this legalization debate will you remember most?

Hutchinson: There’s no way to have a conversation with any policymaker who is African American or Latino and not have a very, very hard talk about what this really means to us and what we’re saying to the world. Because we know the world was watching. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget all those conversations. There were arguments and tears and everything from cynicism and anger to hope in a matter of months that needed to be spoken to. And I feel like I carry that.

[Editor’s note: Hutchinson starts choking up with tears]. I carry that, because I know I’m speaking for people who couldn’t speak for themselves. So I’ll never forget that.