When Illinois state legislators wrote up the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, they thought to go further than just legalizing and regulating marijuana. Their law was the first to include stipulations that mandated overturning past cannabis convictions and expunging arrest records. Signed into law in 2019 the law required that at least 47,000 cannabis-related arrests between 2013 and 2019 be expunged by January 1, 2021. Illinois took this a step further, expunging nearly half a million arrests, putting them five years ahead of their own deadline.
Nearly 500,000 Cannabis Arrests Were Automatically Expunged in Illinois
Illinois State Police have wiped clean records of 492,000 non-felony cannabis related arrests at the start of the year. This includes anyone who was covered under automatic expungement – which to qualify your arrest must have been for possession or dealing, for an amount of 30 grams of marijuana or less and occurred on or before June 25, 2019. There are exceptions to this, including if you were arrested for a violent crime in the same case as your marijuana charges, or if you sold to someone under 18 years old.
“As we near the end of the first year of Illinois’ new legal cannabis industry, I am heartened by the progress we have made towards undoing the harms dealt by the failed war on drugs,” Toi Hutchinson, senior advisor to the governor for cannabis control, said in a statement according to the Chicago Sun Times at the end of 2020.
While arrests are automatically expunged under these circumstances, convictions can also be expunged or pardoned under the new cannabis laws. So far, more than 20,000 convictions have been pardoned – with 9,210 of those having been pardoned by Governor J.B. Pritzker along with the nearly half a million arrests.
The Only State Marijuana Law to Require Expungement of Criminal Records
“We are one year into what will be an ongoing effort to correct historic wrongdoings. The administration remains committed to working with legislators to address any challenges to equity and on building an industry that re-invests in our state’s communities.”
So far, Illinois is the only state to have included a requirement to expunge old criminal cases under new marijuana laws. While the other 11 states where cannabis is legal for recreational purposes did not include this from the start, most have implemented some process to expunge old convictions after the fact.
The recent automatic expungement only included arrests made by Illinois State Police – meaning local police must still go through and expunge arrests records themselves. Out of 102 counties, arrests from DuPage, Kane, Knox, Lake McHenry, McLean, Peoria, Rock Island Will and Winnebago counties have already been expunged. The remaining counties have four years until the 2025 deadline imposed by the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act.
“We will never be able to fully remedy the depth of that damage,” Pritzker said. “But we can govern with the courage to admit the mistakes of our past and the decency to set a better path forward.”
Along with offering a clear path to getting your record cleared, those who want legal help doing so can get it for free. A portion of the taxes and fees collected from the state’s marijuana industry funds New Leaf Illinois, which connects individuals with attorneys specifically to help clear past cannabis convictions.
Righting the Wrongs of the War on Drugs is Often Forgotten in Legalization
In the War on Drugs and the fight for legalization it’s become fact that these laws disproportionately affect minorities, especially when it comes to arrests. Hopefully, Illinois has set an example for other states that look to legalize the plant, highlighting the importance of going beyond simply changing the laws.
“Dismantling decades’ worth of criminal justice atrocities will take years. That’s evidenced by how this country handles cannabis,” State Senator Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) said. “We must never stop chipping away at that painful history. I’m proud of these critical first steps.”
As states continue to push toward more sensible marijuana policies, we hope that those who write the laws aim not only to benefit from tax revenue but also to create opportunities for those who have lost many because of prohibition. No one should be punished for having and using cannabis – but it’s worse when that punishment doesn’t end when the laws change.
Illinois has taken initiative to work toward true reform after legalization. Leafwell will continue to follow their efforts to expunge past cannabis arrests and convictions, as well as efforts across the country as legalization continues to take hold one state at a time.