© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Legal pot meant a second chance for thousands in Illinois — did the state keep its promise?

Have a question about legal marijuana in Illinois or medical marijuana in Missouri? Ask here, and we'll update this guide with answers as we report them out.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
It's been nearly four years since Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis in Illinois, which included language making thousands eligible to clear criminal records

The mood at the Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center on Chicago’s west side was celebratory on June 25, 2019, as hundreds gathered to watch Illinois make history.

With the stroke of a pen, Gov. J.B. Pritzker made it legal for adults in Illinois to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana without fear of arrest. When sales began in 2020, legalization was expected to be a financial boon for the state, but the promise went deeper for some supporters.

“Today, we're hitting the reset button on the war on drugs,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said to applause. “Today, we begin the process of undoing the harm of the war on drugs.”

People who had been arrested for, but not charged with, low-level cannabis offenses would have those records erased automatically. Pritzker pardoned thousands more who were convicted of possession of less than 30 grams. Anyone who had been prosecuted for possession of up to 500 grams – a little more than a pound – would be able to petition the court to have those records expunged.

“Today we're giving hundreds of thousands of people the chance at a better life, jobs, housing and real opportunity,” Pritzker said.

Around a third of Americans have some kind of criminal record by the time they are 25, said Daniel Kuehnert, a staff attorney in the western office of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, a nonprofit serving a swath of Illinois from the Metro East to the Quad Cities. While it may just be an arrest record, “those records are consulted by basically all sorts of entities for important life decisions,” he said.

“And particularly with employment, we see employers who have better jobs doing the heavier criminal background checks,” said Megan Kinney, the managing attorney at Land of Lincoln Legal Aid’s central office, which serves clients in six counties in southwest Illinois. “So it really is not only a barrier to employment, but it's a barrier to good, well-paying, stable jobs with benefits.”

Land of Lincoln Legal Aid was one of 18 nonprofits that joined a coalition called New Leaf Illinois. The state funded the initiative, which provided free legal representation to people who wanted cannabis convictions off their record.

Christopher Bradford was among thousands helped by New Leaf. He was in his mid-20s when he was convicted of felony possession in 2003, giving him a criminal record that potential employers would not overlook.

“And I just felt like, that wasn’t right,” he said in a video posted to New Leaf’s website. “I felt like I was being singled out from others because I had a felony conviction.”

New Leaf helped Bradford clear his record, which allowed him to get a job as a kitchen manager at a restaurant in Springfield, Illinois.

“I’m working, I’m providing for my family, so you know, I’m happy,” he said.

Pitfalls in the process

The law wasn’t perfect.

The word “automatic” was a misnomer, said Kinney. An individual with a criminal record for marijuana had to take an active role in the court system to make that record go away, and every single court in the state is its own entity.

"You have to file a petition in every single county in which there was a charge and arrest or conviction,” Kinney said. “There's not just some magic button that someone can press and all these records just go poof, and they go away.”

The law also failed to address local restrictions on marijuana, said Kuehnert. While some counties were willing to expunge those ordinance violations, “we’ve been encountering some counties where the judge is like, ‘Oh, hey, wait a minute, this law doesn't say anything about ordinance violations.’”

Despite those complications, Kuehnert said, Illinois generally gets high marks nationwide for how its law is structured.

“It’s been pretty good at helping people get their records cleared, helping folks move forward in their lives and helping heal some of the damage to both individuals and our communities from the war on drugs,” he said.

Expungement in Missouri

The Legal Missouri 2022 ballot item is hoping to make marijuana legal for adults who are 21 or older. Eighteen other states and the District of Columbia have already legalized marijuana. Missouri legalized marijuana for medical use in 2018.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Legal Missouri 2022, the initiative petition to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis in the state, also included expungement provisions. But the deadlines for those expungements will be difficult to meet.

When advocates for recreational marijuana in Missouri drafted their ballot measure, they made sure to include expungement provisions as well.

All nonviolent marijuana offenses, except for operating under the influence or sales to a minor, were to be automatically removed by the court, said John Payne, the campaign manager for Legal Missouri 2022.

While there was no formal organization like New Leaf Illinois in Missouri’s initiative, the campaign coordinated with groups like the ACLU and Empower Missouri, Payne said.

“A government program is never 100% accurate the first time,” he said. “We've talked to attorneys from some of these organizations and other attorneys who are just not necessarily affiliated with them but who have said, we'd be happy to help assist.”

Misdemeanors were supposed to be expunged by June 8, while the deadline to remove felony records is Dec. 6. But experts told KCUR those dates did not take into account how time-consuming and complicated it can be to expunge even a misdemeanor case. And while the courts asked for additional money from the state, lawmakers have not provided the assistance.

“I do know that they're making a hell of an effort because I know that the clerk's offices have hired extra people to come in and help,” Stephen Sokoloff, senior counsel for the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, told KCUR. “In some places, I think retirees have been asked to come back and help.”

The law does not outline a penalty for missing the expungement deadlines.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.