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Illinois governor grants 11,000 pardons for low-level cannabis convictions

By Darryl Coote

Dec. 31 (UPI) -- A day before marijuana becomes legal in Illinois, the state's governor on Tuesday pardoned more than 11,000 people convicted of low-level cannabis offenses.

Gov. JB Pritzker granted 11,017 pardons for people throughout the state who have been convicted of misdemeanor marijuana crimes as part of a new law that takes effect Wednesday that will legalize the drug for adult use.

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Pritzker announced the pardons at the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's south side, stating the new law brings an end to the state's 50-year war on cannabis.

"We are restoring rights to many tens of thousands of Illinoisans," he said in a statement. "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 core."

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According to the governor's office, there are 116,000 records of convictions for possession of up to 30 grams eligible for expungement with 43,500 of them solely involving cannabis offenses.

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State police identified all convictions eligible for expungement under the new law and forwarded them to the Prisoner Review Board, which will verify their accuracy before putting them on the governor's desk for pardon consideration.

Under the new law, individuals, civil legal aid organizations and state attorneys can also file motions to vacate for possession of cannabis up to 500 grams, the governor's office said, adding that some 34,000 convictions in this category are eligible for expungement.

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In total, some 700,000 convictions will be eligible for relief under the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, the governor's office said.

"The 11,017 pardons that Gov. Pritzker is granting today are thousands of lives forever changed -- and hundreds of thousands more will be changed in the coming months," said Toi Hutchinson, one of the authors of the bill and senior adviser to the governor for cannabis control. "Those who were unfairly targeted by discriminatory drug laws can finally get ahead and build a new future for themselves and their families."

The Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union cheered the pardons Tuesday, saying they will make "the new year brighter for thousands."

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"We applaud the governor for acting to address the history of unnecessary and discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws in Illinois," Ben Ruddell, criminal justice policy director at ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement. "We know that Black Illinois residents are far more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana possession than whites. This is a good step forward as we begin the legal sales of recreational marijuana."

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The governor's office said entrepreneurs can apply for a license to sell marijuana until Thursday, noting that 25 percent of cannabis revenues will support the Restore, Reinvest and Renew program that aims to undo the effects inflicted upon the community due to the criminalization of marijuana.

Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton said the new program will put the money back into the communities "hit the hardest by decades of over-policing, disinvestment, disenfranchisement and violence."

"In that effort, we're lifting up the voices of the people who actually live in these neighborhoods, who know these blocks and exactly where our dollars will make a real difference," Stratton said.

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