On the eve of cannabis legalization in Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker spoke at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s Far South Side. On New Year’s Eve, he took the opportunity to announce a kick-start to the lengthy drug war expungement process which awaits the state. Over 11,000 pardons for non-violent cannabis convictions, Pritzker said, were being sent to the attorney general’s office for expungement.

“We are ending the 50-year-long war on cannabis,” said Pritzker. “We are restoring rights to tens of thousands of Illinoisans. We are bringing regulation and safety to a previously unsafe and illegal market. And we are creating a new industry that puts equity at its very core.”

But it’s only the beginning of what needs to be done in Illinois to expunge convictions for cannabis-related crimes that are no longer crimes. State officials have estimated that some 116,000 cannabis-related convictions that involved less than 30 grams of marijuana are eligible for automatic pardons. An additional 34,000 estimated cases involving more than 30 grams may be eligible for clearing by filing a court petition.

The state has also committed to expunging all arrests of underage people related to marijuana charges that did not result in a conviction and did not involve an act of violence. A full 572,000 Illinois arrests are estimated to meet that description.

State Sees Continuing Expungement Efforts

Pritzker’s announcement was not the first movement that has been taken on the expungement front in Illinois. In December, Cook County state attorney Kim Foxx filed a motion to expunge over 1,000 cases.

Illinois means to take the lead when it comes to social justice and cannabis legalization. The bill that made the state the 11th to legalize recreational marijuana included an emphasis on building equity practices within the new industry. These include the prioritization of cannabis entrepreneurs who come from areas that saw higher-than-average marijuana arrests, or those who have been subject to cannabis-related policing themselves. Such programs have seen varying amounts of success where implemented in other parts of the country.

Illinois, led by Pritzker, also looks to apply its emphasis on retroactive justice to the expungement of past cannabis-related convictions, which can make it hard for individuals to apply for employment and housing.

Many states have opted for systems that involve action by individuals with such marks on their record, often a time-intensive, costly process for the people involved. Instead, Illinois has implemented a system in which the state police search records for eligible arrests and convictions, then send them to Illinois’ prisoner review board. The board refers approved cases to the governor, and the attorney general files a petition to update the record.

Cook County officials have been working with the tech nonprofit Code For America to expedite the process by using the group’s program. CFA’s technology assist has previously been utilized in California cities.

For all its emphasis on retroactive drug war justice, however, the state has run into other challenges. The Chicago Housing Authority made it clear that legalization on the state level does not change the fact that it is illegal for residents in the 20,000 households in its system to consume marijuana while living in federally subsidized public housing.

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