Controversial Cannabis Legalization Gets a Hearing

On May 15, supporters and opponents packed a Senate Committee hearing room to debate the economic, health and social implications of legalized recreational marijuana, as detailed in Senate Bill 7.

The subject-matter hearing before the Senate Executive Committee included nearly three hours of testimony, some of it rancorous as supporters and opponents weighed in on the plan. The Committee’s Hearing Room was closed after it reached maximum capacity.

Senate Bill 7 would make it legal for residents 21 years of age and older to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis or 5 grams of concentrated cannabis. However, concerns were raised that convictions for possession of up to 500 grams – a Class 4 felony that would remain even if the bill were passed – would be eligible for expungement. Critics questioned why the bill provides for expungement for crimes that would still be illegal if the bill were to become law.

The process for expungement laid out in the legislation also drew fire from committee members and prosecutors this week who noted that the Governor already has the power to commute or pardon offenses – which can automatically lead to an expungement – instead of creating a new expungement process through the Legislature. Prosecutors have cautioned this legislative expungement process could be unconstitutional.

There is historic precedent for Illinois Governors issuing mass clemency or commutation. In 2003, Gov. George Ryan commuted all Illinois death sentences to prison terms of life or less. A similar action, which would be a more streamlined option, could be used in this situation. The process laid out in the bill wouldn’t fully expunge crimes until 2030, whereas a gubernatorial pardon would have immediate effect.

Other concerns have been raised over what revenue legalization could generate, and how it would be allocated. In his Budget Address earlier this year, Gov. Pritzker included $170 million from recreational cannabis to plug a hole in his budget proposal. During the hearing, however, the bill’s sponsor gave an estimate of only $56-57 million in Fiscal Year 2020, most of which would be dedicated to other programs.

According to Senate Executive Committee records, 602 people have filed witness slips supporting Senate Bill 7 and 1,187 people have filed slips opposing the bill.

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