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As Marijuana Goes On Sale In Illinois, Some Weed Convictions Pardoned

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On New Year's Eve, the governor of Illinois issued more than 11,000 pardons for past marijuana convictions. Now that the state has legalized the use of marijuana, he says he wants to right the wrongs of the war on drugs. Here's Brian Mackey of WUIS in Springfield.

BRYAN MACKEY, BYLINE: Illinois' first day of legal recreational marijuana featured long lines, more than $3 million in sales and a round of applause for Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, who queued up to buy pot gummies from a shop in Chicago. But a day earlier, anticipating the hoopla, Governor JB Pritzker said all that was secondary.

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J B PRITZKER: The purpose of this legislation is not to immediately make cannabis widely available or to maximize product on the shelves.

MACKEY: Pritzker, a Democrat, says that will come with time.

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PRITZKER: But instead, the defining purpose of legalization is to maximize equity.

MACKEY: And so the governor issued pardons - a lot of pardons.

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PRITZKER: These 11,017 misdemeanor convictions represent individuals who have carried around with them a stain on their records for possessing less than 30 grams of cannabis.

MACKEY: Pritzker decided to announce the pardons at an African American church in Chicago with a long history of community activism. At times, the event felt more like a sermon than a press conference.

MICHAEL PFLEGER: The story is not about cannabis being free. It's about people being free that's taking place today.

MACKEY: Father Michael Pfleger is an activist and a Catholic priest whose congregation worships a few miles away.

PFLEGER: In the coming weeks, thousands of sisters and brothers who have been held hostage by backgrounds and records that closed doors and locked out opportunities, not just in jobs but also in homes and in education - that ceiling is now being taken down.

MACKEY: Illinois' marijuana law demands a proactive approach to pardons and expungements. The Illinois State Police has been combing through files, looking for records of cannabis convictions and arrests. The governor's office says there could be as many as 116,000 convictions eligible for a pardon. For possession of larger amounts of pot up to half a kilo, people can apply for an expungement. How many of the men and women behind those numbers actually get clear of the law? We'll see. Back at the church news conference, Esther Franco-Payne of Chicago's Cabrini Green Legal Aid says expungement is usually a really difficult process, and the fact that much of this is happening automatically really means something.

ESTHER FRANCO-PAYNE: Not just to us in this room but to the people who are not oftentimes able to take that first step.

MACKEY: Officials hope Illinois' law serves as a model elsewhere in the country. Kim Foxx is the Cook County state's attorney, the lead prosecutor for one of the largest justice systems in the U.S. Last month, she personally filed court papers to vacate a thousand pot convictions in her jurisdiction.

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KIM FOXX: I want us to absorb what has happened, because - not only for the people of Illinois, but for the rest of the country, who perhaps believe that this wasn't possible, that perhaps we could only do legalization and not do reparation. You can actually do both, and Illinois has demanded that you do such.

MACKEY: All this is just part of what Illinois officials say they hope to see from the equity aspects of legalization. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mackey in Springfield, Ill.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "DESCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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