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Cannabis Queens. Marijuana Moms. The Women of Weed.

Those are some of the monikers bestowed upon the four Illinois legislators who collaborated, cajoled, and prodded the United State's most comprehensive adult-use marijuana legislation to the finish line.

On June 25, 2019, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker is slated to sign into law the 610-page Illinois Cannabis Tax and Regulation Act, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2020, and make Illinois the 11th state to legalize adult use cannabis. 

This historic legislation will:

  • Create adult-use markets in the country's sixth-most populous state.
  • Expunge more than 700,000 criminal records of minor marijuana offenders.
  • Guarantee that a portion of cannabis sales revenues will return to communities devastated by the federal war on drugs.
  • Allocate jobs, training, and cannabis business opportunities for people of color and residents of low-income communities.
  • Legalize marijuana use for Illinois residents and visitors.

When the law goes into effect, Illinois residents 21 and older will be able to legally keep up to 30 grams, or a little more than 1 ounce, of cannabis flower, while out-of-state visitors can possess half that amount. Medical marijuana cardholders can legally cultivate up to five plants at home. Licensed cultivators and dispensaries currently under the state's medical marijuana program have the option of also serving the new adult-use population.

Illinois state Sens. Toi Hutchinson and Heather Steans, and state Reps. Jehan Gordon-Booth and Kelly Cassidy, all Democrats, along with the bill's campaign manager, Rose Ashby, a former high-school English teacher, succeeded in guiding and delivering the bill over a two-year period.

They said it helped that both houses of the Illinois General Assembly and the incoming governor shared one political party. But political control hasn't guaranteed legalization in other states, as New Jersey and New York have found out.

Sisterhood of the Cannabis Plants

The bill's journey to law is a story about sisterhood and friendship, listening to others — even opponents — and crafting a bill that meets the needs of many diverse communities.  

“Illinois succeeded because of great leadership from strong, committed women and the collaborative approach they took to build consensus and then follow through after the meetings ended,” explained Kelli Hykes, Weedmaps' Director of Government Relations.

“The women who crafted the historic legislation convinced a governor who initially was not quite on board to go from indifferent to being an enthusiastic supporter, Hykes said.

Illinois became the second state to enact adult-use legalization through legislation and the first to legislatively regulate cannabis sales. Nine adult-use states achieved legalization through a ballot initiative. With Illinois, 11 U.S. states will permit adult-use marijuana.

Co-sponsor Cassidy, who previously worked on the state's medical marijuana law, began crafting a version of the current legislation two years ago.

“We spent a lot of time working on it and it passed on the first vote. That's because we decided to go about it a little differently,” Cassidy told Weedmaps. “The four of us had worked together on other issues and had been friends for a long time.”

A new crop in addition to famous Illinois corn could be coming to the Land of Lincoln when marijuana becomes legal in 2020 in Illinois. (Photo by Bob Bowie on Unsplash)

The Path to Passage

Cassidy said early on the sponsors realized that the legalization process would require dedicated attention. 

“Rose (Ashby) assumed the campaign manager role as the herder of cannabis cats, the point person who keeps track of all the moving parts. I don't know whether it could have been done without her,” Cassidy said. 

“I know I couldn't have survived without her.  She had a mastery of the details. We did so many of these town halls and community meetings that I think I talked about cannabis in my sleep. But it's so important to keep reaching out and keep all of that enthusiasm flowing.”

Hykes also credited Ashby as a driving force behind the landmark bill.

“Rose is not an entrenched political operative. But people believe and trust her because she's honest. She listened to the concerns and motivations of many disparate groups and insured that they were addressed in the bill's final form,” Hykes said.

Everyone Counts

The Marijuana Policy Project, which also worked to help craft the law's language, said the bill contains “the most far-reaching social equity provisions ever included in a legalization law.” 

Hykes said the legislation would never have passed without the social justice and social equity components.

“The sponsors made sure those were included in the spirit and the wording of the legislation. They were so successful because of the consensus-building efforts they took and how their constituent issues were addressed in the final legislation,” Hykes explained. “They legislated like women legislate.”

Cassidy concurred.

“America spent decades dismantling these communities, disinvesting economically, and destroying the lives and careers of generations of young people. Being able to engage in this conversation, hear their concerns, and craft a collaborative, credible response to that was huge.”

In addition to Gordon-Booth, Hutchinson, and Steans, Cassidy also credited state Rep. Celina Villanueva. 

“Much of the talk has been about the four of us legislators, but Celina, who used to be a community organizer, also played a big role in this effort. It's unusual for a freshman legislator to get this deeply engaged.” 

Can the Illinois Model Be Replicated?

The “Marijuana Moms” think their method not only can serve as a template for other states seeking a path for legalization, but also become a standard for making politics work in an era marked by political divisiveness and legislative inertia. 

Cassidy said she believes other states can follow Illinois' blueprint: “I think our dream team is the dreamiest, but you can build one anywhere people are willing to be collaborative. Nobody in our group had any strong individual ownership feelings. We were all happy to accomplish this collectively.”

Cassidy advised legalization advocates in other states to “stay at the table when it's hard not to leave, to keep talking throughout the process, and never give up, not just with your side, but with your opponents as well. Our willingness from day one to engage with people who would never support this bill gave us the training to pursue legalization to the finish line.”

Cassidy said the sponsors knew that Illinois law enforcement associations would never publicly support the bill. 

“But we wanted them to know it would be coming and felt obligated to explain what they would need to know and to listen to their concerns. In the end, nobody could say we didn't care what they thought. But we knew that these leaders would have to enforce this law and would need tools to do so.

What Comes Next?

Hykes said the law's tax structure is a little complex and warned that its relatively high tax burden potentially could threaten future revenues. She predicted the state also will need to add more retail licenses to meet market demands. 

“But the bill got them to where they needed to be. They succeeded in passing one of the biggest social justice laws in Illinois history. It is a remarkable success.”

They succeeded in passing one of the biggest social justice laws in Illinois history. It is a remarkable success. Click To Tweet

Cassidy agreed that the law will require some cleanup and views the law as a historic first step in an ongoing process.

“We knew we would revisit this legislation. This will never be over. Congress repealed the Prohibition law in 1933 and we're still dealing with it. I can see us going back to work on home cultivation. For this bill to pass, we could only get it for medical marijuana patients. But when people see that the sky hasn't fallen and the world didn't come to an end with plants in the basement, I can see us going back to allow home growth.”

Ashby pointed out that Colorado's legislature has returned to tweak its adult use bill five years in a row.

“This is a new industry. You don't know what you don't know,” Ashby said. “I don't foresee any substantive changes. We're in a place we want to be. We set out to create the standard and I hope that's what this ends up being.”

Featured Image: Visiting the mirrorlike Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park is considered a must for Chicago visitors. When marijuana becomes legal on Jan. 1, 2020, there would be more reasons to visit Illinois, too. (Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash)