Illinois governor pardons more than 11,000 marijuana convictions to ring in 2020

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted tens of thousands of pardons for people convicted of low-level marijuana-related offenses on Tuesday.

The Land of Lincoln is set to welcome a new marijuana legalization law on January 1, becoming the 11th state to legalize pot for those 21 years of age and older.

Pritzker, a Democrat whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain, described the more than 11,000 expungements as the first step in anticipation of the new law taking effect on Wednesday.

He announced the pardons at a church on Chicago's South Side, claiming the action will help offenders find work, housing and college aid.

State officials estimate that 116,000 convictions involving 30 grams or less of marijuana, including for possession of the drug, are eligible for pardons under the new law. Illinois State Police are responsible for identifying those convictions and sending the records to the state’s Prisoner Review Board, which then forwarded eligible cases to the governor’s office for pardons.

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Legislators in Springfield who helped craft the bill have said they wanted to alleviate some of the effects of law enforcement's war on drugs in minority communities.

“We are ending the 50-year-long war on cannabis,” Pritzker said in a statement. “We are restoring rights to many 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.”

Other states that have begun permitting marijuana’s sale and use created procedures for people to expunge minor drug offenses, but Illinois officials wanted the process to be almost automatic for people with non-violent marijuana arrests or convictions on their records.

“We know that Black Illinois residents are far more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana possession than whites,” said Ben Ruddell, criminal justice policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “This is a good step forward as we begin the legal sales of recreational marijuana.”

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Pritzker’s office said 92 of the state’s 102 counties are represented among the pardons announced Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Pritzker -- who unseated moderate Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 -- defended the new law in remarks reported by the Chicago Tribune.

“Our goal is not to immediately deliver as much access to recreational cannabis as possible as quickly as possible,” he said during a ceremony in which he signed a document that adjusted parts of the bill -- originally passed in June.

“We want black and brown people, we want people who’ve been left out and left behind, to have a real opportunity to not only benefit from this new industry but to create new millionaires in the black community, in the Latino community, all across this state," he said, heralding his hope that the new law will diversify the legal cannabis industry.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.