SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Jan. 9, 2021) – Illinois expunged over 500,000 past marijuana convictions in 2020 despite federal prohibition.

Illinois legalized marijuana by a legislative act in 2019 and the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The law also created a process for expunging low-level marijuana convictions.

Under the law, nearly 800,000 people with criminal records for purchasing or possessing 30 grams of marijuana or less can have those records expunged. The governor will pardon past convictions for possession of up to 30 grams, with the attorney general going to court to expunge or delete public records of a conviction or arrest. For possession of 30 to 500 grams, an individual or a state’s attorney may petition the court to vacate and expunge the conviction, but prosecutors may object, with a judge to make the final decision.

In 2020, the Illinois State Police expunged 492,192 non-felony cannabis arrest records. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker also issued 9,219 pardons for low-level cannabis crimes on Thursday.

“The collateral consequences of a marijuana conviction last a lifetime,” NORML State Policies Coordinator Carly Wolf said. “I commend Governor Pritzker for taking action to ensure that the lives of hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans with otherwise clean records are not derailed because of an erroneous marijuana conviction that would not have been prosecuted today.”

In the early days of marijuana legalization, people with past convictions were left with few options to clear the records, even though they were guilty of a “crime” that was no longer a crime. But as more states legalized cannabis, states began to pass bills to expunge marijuana charges. Illinois was one of the first states to build expungement into its law.

In fact, in the past, we’ve seen some opposition to marijuana legalization bills because the new laws generally left those previously charged and convicted unprotected. The recent movement toward expungement, and Illinois building it into its legalization scheme reveal an important strategic point. Passing bills that take a step forward sets the stage, even if they aren’t perfect. Opening the door clears the way for additional steps. You can’t take the second step before you take the first.


Under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) passed in 1970, the federal government maintains complete prohibition of marijuana. Of course, the federal government lacks any constitutional authority to ban or regulate cannabis within the borders of a state, despite the opinion of the politically connected lawyers on the Supreme Court. If you doubt this, ask yourself why it took a constitutional amendment to institute federal alcohol prohibition.

Despite federal prohibition, Illinois legalized marijuan. This removes a huger layer of laws punishing the possession and use of marijuana in the state, but federal prohibition remains in effect. This is significant because FBI statistics show that law enforcement makes approximately 99 of 100 marijuana arrests under state, not federal law. When states stop enforcing marijuana laws, they sweep away most of the basis for 99 percent of marijuana arrests.

Furthermore, figures indicate it would take 40 percent of the DEA’s yearly-budget just to investigate and raid all of the dispensaries in Los Angeles – a single city in a single state. That doesn’t include the cost of prosecution. The lesson? The feds lack the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition without state assistance.


Illinois joins a growing number of states increasingly ignoring federal prohibition, and nullifying it in practice.

Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska were the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, and California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts joined them after ballot initiatives in favor of legalization passed in November 2016. Michigan followed suit when voters legalized cannabis for general use in 2018. Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana through a legislative act in 2018. During the November election, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota joined New Jersey in legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

With 36 states including allowing cannabis for medical use, and 15 legalizing for adult recreational use, the feds find themselves in a position where they simply can’t enforce prohibition anymore.

The lesson here is pretty straightforward. When enough people say, ‘No!’ to the federal government, and enough states pass laws backing those people up, there’s not much the feds can do to shove their so-called laws, regulations or mandates down our throats.


Mike Maharrey

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