Illinois closed out 2020 on an extremely chill note in at least one respect: On the last day of the year, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that the state would be expunging close to 500,000 marijuana-related convictions from arrest records, and pardoning another 9,200.
The move was the result of a deadline set by the Illinois’ Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, a 2019 law that legalized marijuana and required the government to expunge 47,000 cannabis-related arrest records from the years between 2013 and 2019 by 2021, according to HuffPost. The legislation made about 770,000 records eligible for expungement, in attempts to make reparations to those who were victims of the state’s war on drugs.
“Statewide, Illinoisans hold hundreds of thousands low-level cannabis-related records, a burden disproportionately shouldered by communities of color,” Pritzker said. “We will never be able to fully remedy the depth of that damage. But we can govern with the courage to admit the mistakes of our past—and the decency to set a better path forward.”
The law tries to achieve this through a “social equity program” as well, which gives people who have been impacted by the the state’s criminalization of marijuana help starting businesses. And the state will put a quarter of all cannabis tax revenue into a fund dedicated to helping communities that disproportionately suffer from violence and poverty, investing the money in youth development, legal aid services, and re-entry programs, to name a few.
As has been well-documented by now, Black people are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than their white counterparts, even though both groups use marijuana at similar rates. According to a 2020 analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union, this is true in every state, and in some states Black people were up to “six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested” for marijuana possession than white people.
These racial disparities have actually gotten worse over the last several years, the ACLU reports, despite many states attempting to address them. After marijuana became legal in Colorado, for example, marijuana arrests among adults declined by half, but at the same time, arrest rates for Black and Latino teens rose dramatically.
It’s clear that governments need to focus on changing the conditions of its policing in the present just as much if not more than it needs to make amends for its past. Nonetheless, expunging people’s records for cannabis-related offenses is an obvious step in the right direction. More of this, please.