Pro-pot legislators are still hoping to pass a bill legalizing recreational marijuana by the end of the month, but they are heading back to the negotiating table in hopes of stubbing out a flurry of objections.
Opponents of the wide-ranging bill had free rein to voice their displeasure at a lengthy Senate committee hearing in Springfield on Wednesday — and they aired concerns about everything from how law enforcement will measure impairment in drivers to which marijuana offenses should be expunged to whether or not weed causes erectile dysfunction.
The latter claim had one of the bill’s sponsors scratching her head. State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who has worked on the legislation for years, said she hadn’t heard that one before.
Nevertheless, Steans said she plans to file an amendment to the measure next week to address other concerns, specifically over expungements and home grow.
Currently, the proposed legislation would allow for five plants within a household. Steans’ legislation may change those provisions to apply to just medical marijuana, amid opponents’ concerns over whether those homegrown plants would wind up for sale on the illegal black market.
The amendment would also clean up language about employers’ drug policies, namely to address questions about on-call employees.
The bill is one of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s key priorities this legislative session, and sponsors want it passed by the May 31 end of the regular legislative session.
On May 4, Pritzker gave a stamp of approval to newly filed legislation that will allow Illinois residents over 21 to buy cannabis from licensed dispensaries. It would allow Illinoisans over 21 years old to possess 30 grams, or just over an ounce of cannabis flower, and 5 grams, or less than a quarter-ounce, of cannabis concentrates such as hash oil. Additionally, Illinoisans would be able to carry up to a half-gram of edible pot-infused products.
The bill’s criminal and social justice considerations include plans to use an automated system to expunge roughly 800,000 marijuana convictions and allow those with pot convictions to work in the legal cannabis industry. The measure would also create a designation for “social equity applicants” hoping to obtain licenses and provide minority-owned businesses support by offering technical assistance, access to capital and loans and relief from fees that have posed a barrier to entry for those looking to crack into the state’s pot industry.
Steans told the committee the legislation would regulate a product that’s already widely used but unregulated.
“You know exactly where product has gone every step of the way. You know what’s in it. You know a use-by date,” Steans said. “You know exactly what the THC content is and you know that it’s got no pesticides or any other contaminants or any other products on it.”
Under the current proposed legislation, public consumption of marijuana — such as outside on the street — remains illegal.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, who is also a sponsor of the bill, testified that there’s still a problem of “if you make a product legal to consume and then have no place to consume it, that you still are having people operate in illegal ways and that lead to further disparate impact.”
Hutchinson said that issue is still being negotiated.
Deputy Governor Christian Mitchell said the proposal includes a roughly $20 million low-interest loan to help potential growers who have had difficulty accessing capital.
One facet of the bill would automatically expunge the criminal records of those who have been arrested, convicted or are on supervision for misdemeanor class 4 felony violations of the Cannabis Control Act.
“It’s always been a priority for the governor,” Mitchell said. “I think there are folks in the public in terms of expectation who think that if you’re going to legalize an industry that has disproportionally affected the lives of folks from disproportionally affected areas, that doing something to make sure they can participate and have the scarlet letter removed from their lives is important to a lot of people.”
Law enforcement representatives testified about concerns over roadside testing of those who use marijuana, including how much it will cost and how effective it will be. The legislation as it stands would give 8% of revenue to law enforcement to pay for such provisions.
The only way to test whether drivers have marijuana in their system is to get blood drawn.
Hazel Crest Police Chief Mitchell Davis, who is second vice president for Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, testified that it’s a complicated process. Police must get a search warrant, which he called a “monumental process” for a traffic stop. Law enforcement would try to conduct a field sobriety test, then have to try to get the driver to voluntarily give blood or if there’s enough evidence, get an investigate process to get a search warrant. A state’s attorney would have to get the search warrant and a judge would have to sign off on it.
Another challenge is getting blood from drivers at the hospital to prove cannabis in their systems. In some cases, hospitals won’t administer blood tests due to liability concerns, if drivers don’t consent to do the test.
One of the last speakers to address senators in the nearly three-hour committee was a social worker from West Leyden High School. Michele Ratini testified that the children she works with may see legalization as a green light to use the drug. She said students who began using marijuana during the school year had become withdrawn and their schoolwork had gotten worse.
“I am merely here to tell you what kids tell me and what I’ve seen in my experience in the last 20 years working with adolescents,” Ratini said. “In the past probably 10 years, the use of marijuana has increased among the students I have worked with, and what I have noticed, which has been concerning, has been psychotic episodes and episodes of paranoia. Whereas once upon a time somebody would smoke weed. They would get high, and that would be the end of the story. Whereas now I’m seeing more significant health impacts and that there’s a difference in the type of weed that people are using.”
“Teens trust our laws,” Ratini said. “Developmentally, they’re rebellious. But they trust our laws. Their decisions are shaped by the values that we tell them are important.”
Steans told the committee there would be no advertising near any places where children “congregate”; no advertising geared to appeal to minors, including cartoons, toys, animals or character that appeal to children; packing must also be sealed in containers that are child-resistant and includes warnings about why it’s only good for adult-use and that it’s not good for breast-feeding or pregnant women.
“There’s also going to be a public education before the start date for this bill,” Steans said.” And the bill creates the Public Health Advisory Committee to provide ongoing commitment on public education and health issues around this issue.”