Craig Cesal was sentenced to life in prison for a cannabis offense before former President Donald Trump granted him a pardon.
Today he finds himself in a different position: director of advocacy and senior clemency case manager at his nonprofit, the Second Chance Foundation. Last year, the Oakbrook Terrace resident teamed up with attorney Huma Rashid, who wrote his clemency petition. Rashid has advocated on behalf of prisoners in situations similar to Cesal’s case. Cesal and Rashid collaborate to help those convicted on cannabis-related charges seek clemency and other judicial relief.
So far, the nonprofit is not representing any Illinois prisoners. Second Chance is in contact with an Illinois cannabis prisoner about possible representation, but Cesal said nothing has been confirmed yet. However, Cesal told the Reader that he’s planning to meet with Governor J.B. Pritzker’s office to ask what it will take to grant clemency for state prisoners with cannabis-related charges.
Though the public thinks Illinois has legalized cannabis, the truth is “if you get pulled over in your car with a pound of marijuana on the passenger seat, you face time in prison in Illinois,” Cesal said.
In the years following cannabis legalization in Illinois, weed has only been partially decriminalized. Illinois has legalized recreational cannabis use, and the state’s legal cannabis industry has brought in billions of dollars in recent years, but the state still has cannabis prisoners incarcerated for offenses. And for free people with multiple cannabis convictions in multiple places and offenses involving more than 30 grams of weed, the process of expunging those convictions from one’s record remains cumbersome, sources told the Reader.
According to an Illinois Department of Corrections prison population data set from December 31, 2022, there are 91 people incarcerated on cannabis-related offenses, including cannabis trafficking, possession of cannabis of fewer than 5,000 grams, and producing less than 200 cannabis plants. The IDOC’s population data set also shows that 140 people were out on parole for cannabis-related offenses, including possession of fewer than 5,000 grams of cannabis and cannabis trafficking. When the Reader reached out to Governor Pritzker’s office for comment on any additional cannabis criminalization efforts, his spokesperson did not comment as of press time.
The criminalization of cannabis doesn’t end with arrests and prison time for offenses involving more than 30 grams of cannabis. Cesal pointed out that people with cannabis convictions can’t apply to be a budtender, meaning a curator of cannabis.
“Let’s not forget the people like me who created the industry but are now locked out of it by Illinois law. That Illinois law should allow me to become a component of the industry, but it does not,” Cesal said.
Margo Vesely, the executive director of the Illinois chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (IL NORML), said that now that cannabis has been legalized in Illinois, her organization wants to begin raising grant funding to support organizations and to provide interns for nonprofits such as Cesal’s that are helping to free cannabis prisoners. Vesely said IL NORML wants to start with a fundraiser to support grant recipients. The advocacy group also has a program called Legacy to Legal that helps people who were involved with cannabis before it was legalized gain entry into the legal market, she adds.
“It’s ridiculous that we have legal operators doing the same thing that these people are doing. It’s just because you don’t have a license, you are behind bars,” Vesely said. “Had we not had the legacy operators here, where would [we] have been now? Would we [legacy operators] even be legalized? No . . . because there would have been less of a movement for it. So we have to honor it.”
Beyond being locked out of the state cannabis industry, people with cannabis convictions on their record also risk other consequences stemming from the federal prohibition of cannabis. For example, being convicted of a cannabis offense could impact one’s housing or immigration status, which are both regulated at the federal level, said Teri Ross, executive director of Illinois Legal Aid Online. Though Chicago has regulations prohibiting criminal records as the basis for denying housing, there are exceptions to the rule, she said.
And while cannabis prisoners remain incarcerated for offenses involving more than 30 grams of cannabis, legal operators have raked in $406 million in fiscal year 2020, $1.19 billion in fiscal year 2021, and $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2022, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation’s 2022 Annual Cannabis Report.
As for Illinoisans with cannabis convictions on their records, the process for clearing their records can be time-consuming and complex, particularly for people with records across multiple counties, Ross said. To get rid of the records, they have to file petitions in each county where they have a record, she said, adding that many people have been arrested or convicted in more than one place.
In some cases, requesting those records requires the requester to get fingerprinted, which costs money, and sometimes personal information is entered incorrectly into the records, a problem that digitizing records could solve, Ross added. And once one files a petition to expunge these records, the petitioner has to notify the arresting authority, giving the state’s attorney the opportunity to object to an expungement, she said. Ross couldn’t say for sure how many people Illinois Legal Aid has assisted with their cannabis convictions.
“Of course, it’s the Black and Brown communities who’ve been devastated by mass incarceration. And I don’t think it’s any secret that the police, generally speaking, target Black and Brown people more than they target white people,” Ross said. “So it’s certainly those communities who have already faced multiple barriers to justice who are most affected.”
For cannabis convictions that don’t qualify for automatic expungement, many Illinoisans may not know that they can get legal assistance to expunge their records, said Beth Johnson, coordinator for New Leaf Illinois. Johnson said that her organization has done ad campaigns about expungement across the state, including bus ads in southern Illinois, CTA ads in Chicago, ads on Google, Facebook, and the radio.
Ultimately, the best way to maximize the number of people who no longer have a cannabis conviction on their record is to implement an automatic non-petition-based system, Johnson said. But given that the state has 102 different counties with their own databases, processes, and systems, executing this will require a lot of resources, she admitted.
“If you’re putting the burden on a person, which has been the burden on people since the beginning of time in terms of expunging or sealing and now expunging and vacating cannabis convictions, you are only going to get a fraction of the folks that are eligible,” Johnson said. “And until we shift that system . . . you’re going to see the same, only partial, results for people, not like systemic changes in people’s records, but it’s a huge investment of resources by the state to do that. But if they want this to happen, it’s the only way.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx confirmed with the Reader that her office has expunged more than 15,000 cannabis convictions that qualified for automatic expungement under current law. There are some cases left dating back to the 60s that now qualify for expungement, but Foxx couldn’t say how many the State’s Attorney’s Office has left to clear. Doing so for cases from that long ago requires the office to search through very old records and find the current address for qualifying residents.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office enlisted Code for America, a San Francisco-based civic technology nonprofit, to develop code for finding qualifying cannabis records within the Illinois State Police’s database and generate the proper paperwork, Foxx said. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down the process as courts ground to a halt, working with Code for America helped the office automate the process, she said.
Reflecting on her childhood, Foxx recalled her mother—who suffered from bipolar disorder that was undiagnosed for many years—using cannabis to self-medicate. But had her mother been caught with the substance at any point, “there was a very real possibility that my mother would have went to jail . . . I have never forgotten what that could have [meant].”
Foxx said she hopes President Biden will take more action at the federal level to decriminalize cannabis beyond the federal prosecutions he pardoned in October. In the meantime, the patchwork of partial legalization will be led by elected officials who take up the decriminalization work themselves, she said.
“What you’ve seen at the national level and in other places is where people feel like they have the luxury and privilege of time,” Foxx said. “They don’t see that person trying to fill out that job application and getting rejected because of a weed conviction. They don’t see that kid who is trying to get that scholarship money and has that conviction. It is not proximate to them. And so I think the lack of proximity to these real-world implications is why things have gone so slow.”
Ultimately, Cesal hopes the state of Illinois will regulate the cannabis industry like alcohol or other existing industries, and he wants the market to open up to those excluded due to cannabis criminalization.
“I want to get away from Illinois creating a monopoly of just a few select people and open it up so that there is inclusion and diversity throughout Illinois’s cannabis industry,” Cesal said. “I want to make it so that a person on the south and west sides of Chicago can open a dispensary even if they don’t have four or five million to spend. And I think that’s going to be the future of cannabis.”
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April 22, 2023 at 10:21PM