Staff Editorial: What we can learn from legal pot in Illinois

As of the beginning of 2020, the use of recreational cannabis is now legal in Illinois, following the lead of 10 other states. Lawmakers in Illinois made the bold move to begin expunging the criminal records of up to 800,000 individuals arrested for the purchase or possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis, according to NPR. The process of expungement will be almost automatic, the Associated Press reported. This was a powerful and distinctive decision — and it was the right one. Without expungement, the racial discrimation inherent in marijuana criminalization is not addressed and minorities that had been disproportionately impacted by criminalization continue to be affected by the old, overturned laws. As more states follow suit in the legalization of cannabis, expungement of criminal records should become a normal part of the legalization process.  

While several other states like California and Colorado are working to expunge the records of cannabis offenders, none live up to the precedent Illinois has set. A common model requires offenders to petition the state to clear their records. According to the Los Angeles Times, this is excessively bureaucratic and discourages many from even starting the process. California has succeeded in making it the burden of the state to wipe records, though Colorado continues to struggle with this issue, according to The Denver Post. New York also moved to expunge records recently, but without legalization. The New York Times reported that the state is moving to clear the records of about 160,000 people as part of a new law to reduce cannabis penalties. However, the state has still not fully legalized the drug, posing questions as to how effective expungement could be with such ease of reoffending. 

Expungement should go hand-in-hand with legalization because it doesn’t make sense for people to have criminal records for something that is no longer illegal, especially when these charges, which are sometimes felonies, can have a lasting impact on serious aspects of life, like the ability to get a job. Furthermore, certain communities have borne the weight of the war on drugs. Where cannabis is criminalized, people of color are disproportionately jailed and fined for use and possession. Legalizing without expunging opens up possibilities for one community to directly profit where another community is punished. 

Ben Rudell, the criminal justice policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told the Associated Press that the expungement of records is a step in the right direction in moving past the prejudiced history of cannabis-related arrests and convictions, allowing those targeted by discriminatory policies to move on with their lives. 

Illinois has also designated a quarter of tax revenue from now-legal cannabis sales to “redevelop impoverished communities in the state,” according to the Associated Press. This will help bolster communities that were negatively impacted during the war on drugs.

Illinois certainly has made one of the most progressive moves toward the legalization of recreational marijuana, but their work is far from over. Since cannabis arrests go hand-in-hand with discriminatory policies, legalization is not enough. States must also work to repair the damage done to minority communities, through expungement of records and creating sources for revenue. According to USA Today, there are no people of color or women that are licensed to sell marijuana in Illinois, which shows that the industry in Illinois is still biased and prejudiced against people that are not white men. All in all, Illinois and the rest of the U.S. are making great strides towards ending the racist institutions that have kept so many behind bars for so long, but we still must demand better from our governments in the way they handle expunging criminal records and offer their reparations to the communities they have damaged the most with the War on Drugs.