How Illinois Became the Only State to Legalize Weed Sales Without a Referendum

Illinois lawmakers managed to pass a bill because they dealt upfront with tough social justice issues.


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Illinois lawmakers, solving issues that tripped up lawmakers in other states, have made recreational marijuana legal, becoming the first state where the state legislature made cannabis sales legal without a vote from the people.

Illinois is the 11th state to legalize marijuana and the second midwestern state to do so, following legalization approved by Michigan voters in 2018. Illinois lawmakers got it done by addressing many of the issues, including minority representation in the marijuana industry, that had derailed similar legislative action in New Jersey and New York.

Related: What the U.S. Can Learn From Weed Legalization in Canada

Joining the legal states.

Illinois joins 10 other states, and the District of Columbia, in making recreational marijuana legal. The rost of states where recreational cannabis is now legal (and the year voters approved legal sales) are:

  • Colorado (2012)
  • Washington (2012)
  • Alaska (2014)
  • Oregon (2014)
  • District of Columbia (2014)
  • Nevada (2016)
  • California (2016)
  • Massachusetts (2016)
  • Maine (2016)
  • Vermont (2018)
  • Michigan (2018)

In all the other states, except Vermont, voters approved marijuana legalization, starting with 2012 referendums in Colorado and Washington. In 2018 Vermont lawmakers made it legal for adults to grow, possess and consume marijuana but have yet to allow for commercial sales.  

Sales timeline in Illinois.

Approving recreational pot sales is just one step of the process. Regulators in Illinois must now create an enforcement agency and set up a licensing system for dispensaries, growers and other marijuana-related businesses.

All this takes time. While Nevada had its system up and running just eight months after voters approved recreational marijuana sales, they were the exception. Both Massachusetts and Maine have been slow to get sales going, the latter because of opposition from the governor. Michigan officials expect to have drafts for potential marijuana sales regulations written by June.

In Illinois, lawmakers set Jan. 1. 2020 as the date for the law to go into effect. Experience has shown that might not happen, but Illinois could prove different. Certainly, its law is different than other states.

Related: Illinois to Become 11th State to Legalize Adult-Use Marijuana

Minority support and other issues.

The Illinois law addresses many of the issues around minority ownership in the marijuana industry that other states did not address until after recreational weed was legal. These issues have stymied lawmakers driving legalization in New Jersey and New Yorkh.

The Illinois law sets aside a $12 million Cannabis Business Development Fund to lower licensing fee costs for minority entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry, according to Governing magazine. The fund also will provide low-interest business loans to minority owners, an important step because banks will not loan money to the cannabis industry as long as weed remains illegal at the federal level.

The Illinois law also:

  • Establishes marijuana job training programs at community colleges
  • Expunges marijuana arrest records for as many as 750,000 state residents
  • Uses 25 percent of marijuana sales tax and fee revenue to fund Restore, Reinvest and Renew, a program that will award grant money to programs that address violence in communities affected by the war on drugs.

Charles Bachtell, co-founder and CEO of cannabis company Cresco Labs, told CNBC that Illinois’ actions could influence lawmakers on the East Coast.

“I know that the conversations in Albany and likewise in New Jersey lately have been, ‘Can you do this?’ or ‘Does this need to be a ballot initiative?” he said. “Illinois has shown them you can do this through the legislature.”.

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