New Illinois Governor May Act Quickly to Legalize Recreational Marijuana

Holland & Knight LLP

Holland & Knight LLP


  • Illinois Governor-Elect J.B. Pritzker is expected to act quickly on one of his campaign promises – the legalization of recreational marijuana use.
  • Illinois has been gradually moving toward full legalization since permitting medical use in 2013.
  • As legislation is drafted and debated by the next General Assembly, municipalities should consider how legalization could impact their communities.

With the election of J.B. Pritzker as the next governor of Illinois on Nov. 6, 2018, there is likely to be quick legislative action on the legalization of recreational marijuana use. Rarely does a newly elected governor get the chance to enact a major legislative change that is both widely popular and revenue-positive. In a survey conducted this spring, 66 percent of Illinois residents polled supported legalization of recreational marijuana use.1 States that have legalized recreational use have seen large tax revenue windfalls, including more than $200 million collected by the state of Colorado for the first nine months of this year.2 And although Illinois' international neighbor to the north, Canada, legalized recreational use of cannabis last month, none of Illinois' neighboring states have made this move.

Road to Legalization

Full legalization has been on the horizon in Illinois for more than five years. With the passage of the Illinois Compassionate Use of Cannabis Pilot Program Act (410 ILCS 130/1 et seq.) in 2013, the state began a slow but steady rollout of medical marijuana. The Pilot Program, which was designed to be one of the strictest medical-use regulatory schemes in the nation, allowed the licensing and operation of 20 cultivation facilities and 60 dispensaries. However, because of low patient numbers, only 53 licensed dispensaries are currently operating in the state.3 With less than 27,000 registered patients statewide, operators of dispensaries have attributed the industry's slow growth to the limited number of medical conditions that are eligible for treatment with cannabis. Gov. Bruce Rauner has opposed expanding the number of qualifying conditions, with only post-traumatic stress disorder being added since the program started.

In July 2016, the Illinois General Assembly took another incremental step to legalization by adopting Public Act 99-0697. This Act decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of cannabis and limited civil fines for small quantity possession to $200. Local governments were allowed to impose larger monetary fines through local adjudication.

In January 2018, Governor-Elect Pritzker announced legalization of recreational marijuana as a significant plank of his campaign. He was supported in this by state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who had both sponsored legalization bills in 2017. Sen. Steans and Rep. Cassidy are expected to be the legislative point persons for legalization bills when the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2019.

Imminent Legislative Action

Steans and Cassidy have not released draft language for their proposed bills yet, but their offices have provided a broad outline of their goals:

  • allow Illinois residents over age 21 to legally possess up to 28 grams of cannabis and own/cultivate up to five cannabis plants
  • allow nonresidents over age 21 to legally possess up to 14 grams of cannabis
  • implement a tax structure that encourages competition and diverts sales from the black market
  • provide law enforcement and public safety agencies with the tools needed to enforce the law and prevent abuse

Steans and Cassidy are currently meeting with stakeholder groups across the state as well as with legislators and law enforcement officials from states that have already implemented legalization. Among the important questions and issues that will need to be addressed include:

  • How can law enforcement cite and prosecute DUIs when there is a lack of reliable field tests or legal standards for cannabis intoxication?
  • How much control should be given to municipalities to regulate the operation and zoning of dispensaries and cultivation facilities?
  • Will municipalities be allowed to require retailers and growers to pay impact fees for increased costs of municipal services resulting from their operations?
  • Will municipalities be able to impose local taxes on marijuana sales?
  • How will state tax revenues be shared between the myriad levels of local government in Illinois?
  • Where will consumption of cannabis be allowed and where will it be prohibited?
  • How will full legalization affect drug-free workplace and other employment policies?


1 See Paul Simon Institute poll

2 See Colorado Marijuana Tax Data

3 See "Judge orders Illinois to expand medical marijuana qualifying conditions to include pain," Chicago Tribune, Jan. 16, 2018

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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