What Legalization Means For People With Cannabis Convictions In Illinois

Gov. J. B. Pritzker takes in the applause before signing a bill that legalizes adult-use cannabis in the state of Illinois at Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center in Chicago. The legalization law also mandates expungement of certain low-level cannabis arrests and convictions.

When he was in his early 20s, Matt purchased a pound of weed to split with his friends. The drug dealer dropped it off at his apartment in central Illinois. Moments later, he said, cops stormed in, and arrested Matt and his friends. He spent a night in jail, two-and-half years on probation, and for nearly a decade he’s lived with a felony on his record. 

Matt is now a father in his early 30s, and cannabis is a legal product under Illinois’ new legalization law. Illinois Newsroom is using Matt’s first name only to protect his family’s privacy.

The new law also contains criminal justice reforms intended to erase the criminal records of some cannabis convictions and arrests. The law focuses specifically on lower-level cannabis offenses — possession charges and convictions involving less than 30 grams of the drug, which is slightly more than an ounce, or a large jam jar full of weed. 

State officials estimate that over 700,000 records representing more than 435,000 individuals will be cleared under the criminal justice reforms contained in the new law. Those who were arrested but not convicted of carrying less than 30 grams will have their arrests expunged by 2025, while individuals who were convicted of a misdemeanor or felony involving the same amount — and were not charged with a violent offense at the same time — will also see their records wiped clean, eventually. On Dec. 31, 2019, a day before legalization took effect, Gov. J.B. Pritzker pardoned about 11,000 such convictions out of an estimated 116,000 statewide. 

While the process will take years, expungement for certain categories of arrests and convictions will be automatic in the sense that the work will be done not be the affected individuals but by state agencies tasked with carrying out the process. 

But Matt is one of about 31,000 people convicted of a Class 3 cannabis felony, which includes offenses involving amounts ranging from 30 to 500 grams of weed — slightly more than a pound — according to data provided by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. Matt, like thousands of others across the state, is not eligible for automatic relief under the new cannabis law, because his conviction involved a larger amount of the drug.

He said his felony record continues to haunt him today; Matt said he’s been denied about a dozen jobs because of his conviction.

“It got to the point where I was denied so many times that I’d get to the second interview and I would just say, ‘Hey, I want to be up front with you. I have this on my record. I don’t know if you guys hire felons or not. And 99% of the time they would say, ‘No, we do not. But once your record is clear, give us a call and we can give you a chance,’” Matt said. 

He also wants to complete his bachelor’s degree. Matt dropped out of college shortly before he was arrested on the cannabis charge. But, under federal law, students with drug convictions may be barred from receiving aid depending on the nature of the charge. Matt said he was unable to get federal student loans due to his conviction. 

“The biggest goal of mine is to get my college education done,” Matt said. But that goal has been put on hold as a result of his criminal record, he said. 

The stigma of being labeled a felon has also weighed heavily on Matt.

“It’s embarrassing. I had to hide it from my family for a number of years. They always wondered ‘Why is Matt not going back to college? Why is Matt not getting a better job?’” he said.

State Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Champaign) said she frequently hears stories like Matt’s. 

“These stories are so common by the thousands. People are trying to get on with their lives but these records are holding them back,” she said. Ammons said the criminal justice reforms contained in the current law represent a start, but she believes more should be done to assist people with higher level convictions to get their records cleared.

“I got a call last week from someone who had 32 grams of marijuana — 32 grams —  at the time of their arrest, and could not believe that they weren’t automatically eligible for that relief,” Ammons said. “I think we — meaning legislators — will start getting these calls from people in our communities saying, ‘Why is this not offered and why am I not eligible and how do I become eligible so that I can clear this off my record and move on?’”

Matt and the more than 30,000 others with convictions for possession up to 500 grams can file petitions to expunge their records on their own. But the process is complex, and can become costly once lawyers get involved. 

Matt said he’s looked into expunging his record, but he said “I honestly don’t even know where to start.” Ammons said most people don’t know how to navigate the process on their own. While legal aid clinics can help, they’re scattered across the state and not always easily accessible.

“Over time, we’re going to see that we need to do more to make it easier for people to get these records cleared,” Ammons said.

County state’s attorneys have the ability to file petitions to vacate and expunge cannabis offenses up to 500 grams on behalf of offenders, Ammons said. She said she can imagine a scenario when state’s attorneys from certain counties choose to petition to expunge or vacate convictions up to 500 grams, while their counterparts in other parts of the state choose not to. 

“And this is where I think the legislature will step in and say that’s too much disparity across the state, from one state’s attorney to another, where people are being relieved here and not there,” Ammons said. “And I think that that’s going to be the next phase that we will see driving some of the continued reforms in the legislature.”

But Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said the expungement measures contained in the cannabis legalization measure, in addition to a 2017 law mandating expungement of juvenile records, has created an enormous workload for local law enforcement agencies. ILACP is a law enforcement advocacy organization that represents 1,200 members across 450 agencies throughout Illinois. Wojcicki said the expungement reforms already on the books will cost law enforcement agencies “thousands and thousands of hours in labor.”

“It’s going to be a tall order to actually be able to accomplish what the legislation requires us to accomplish — and it’s not because they don’t want to do it. It’s just because the task of that is monumental,” he said.

Wojcicki said adding more convictions to those already eligible for automatic expungement would create an even larger burden on law enforcement agencies. 

Advocates for cannabis expungement cite data that shows people of color have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization, and the myriad barriers to housing, employment and education that a felony record can create. But Wojcicki questions the rationale that underpins expungement of cannabis offenses. 

“From the standpoint of people who are charged by society with enforcing laws, it could be a bad precedent to do massive expungements of people, you know, because they were crimes at the times they were committed,” Wojcicki said. 

He said criminal records offer valuable information. 

“I think it’s important to employers, it’s important to society. It’s just helpful to know that this is this is part of a person’s history,” Wojcicki said.

But Matt believes he deserves a chance to move past that part of his history. He has reached out to legal aid clinics with the hope of eventually getting the conviction off his record. Matt said he’s happy for those who will see their records cleared automatically, but he wants the state to do more to help people in his situation. 

“They need to implement something to just make it easier for people in my situation to get the help they need to make this process easier,” he said. “I mean, everyone needs a second chance, everyone needs an opportunity. No one wants to be labeled a felon.”

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

Correction: This story was updated Jan. 16, 2020 to reflect that state officials estimate 700,000 records, not people, will be affected by the criminal justice reforms contained in the cannabis legalization law. 

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Lee V. Gaines

Lee V. Gaines

Lee Gaines covers Education for the Illinois Newsroom. She started at Illinois Public Media in 2017 and her stories have been featured nationally on NPR. Prior to her work at IPM, Lee wrote for newspapers and magazines in Chicago and nationally. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and the Marshall Project. She also recently completed a fellowship with the Education Writers Association. ➤ lvgaines@illinois.edu@LeeVGaines