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Illinois to Expunge Nearly 800,000 Marijuana Convictions

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  • Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older.
  • Experts have said the law contains one of the most comprehensive criminal justice reforms compared to other states that have legalized marijuana.
  • Once in effect, the law will expunge the criminal records of nearly 770,000 people previously charged with buying or possessing 30 grams of marijuana or less.
  • It also includes a social equity program that will provide grants and loans to people in communities impacted by the war on drugs and give them priority for obtaining business licenses to operate cannabis stores.

Legalization Bill

Illinois became the 11th state to legalize marijuana Tuesday when Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that will make the sale of cannabis legal and implement sweeping criminal justice reform.

The bill is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, and will allow Illinois residents 21 and over to buy and possess up to 30 grams (1 ounce) of recreational marijuana. Non-residents visiting the state will be allowed to purchase up to 15 grams.

Once in effect, the law will also automatically expunge the criminal records of around 770,000 people convicted of purchasing or possessing 30 grams of marijuana or less. Those convicted of buying or possessing 30 to 500 grams can petition a court to have their charges expunged.

The expungement provision is one of several in the bill targeted towards communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. 

“In the past 50 years, the war on cannabis has destroyed families, filled prisons with nonviolent offenders and disproportionately disrupted black and brown communities,” Pritzker said at the bill signing.

“Studies have shown time and time again that black and white people tend to use cannabis at the same rates, but black people are far more likely to be arrested for possession,” he continued. “Today we are giving hundreds of thousands of people the chance at a better life.”

Social Equity Program

In addition to the expungements, the new law also includes a social equity program that will give grants and loans to individuals in communities affected by the war on drugs who want to start a cannabis business.

The program will also give preference to minorities who apply for businesses licenses. Heather Steans, the main Illinois state senator who sponsored the bill, predicted that at least 20% of licenses will go to people of color, according to Rolling Stone.

Additionally, the social equity program mandates that 25% of tax revenue from marijuana sales will go to redeveloping and reinvesting in communities that have been hurt by the war on drugs.

Opposition

Law enforcement organizations expressed concern over the bill throughout the legislative process.

Police have argued that enforcing driving under the influence laws will be difficult as the technology for testing marijuana impairment needs to be developed more.

While the legalization bill was being debated in the state’s legislature, law enforcement lobbyists successfully killed a measure that would have allowed adults over 21 to grow up to five marijuana plants for personal use.

Police again argued that enforcement would be difficult, and as a result, the bill was amended so only medical marijuana users can grow plants at home.

However, law enforcement was not the only group that opposed the legalization or specific parts of it. According to Dan Linn, the executive director of Illinois NORML, the drug testing industry, as well as anti-drug groups and some religious organizations also fought against the bill.

Comprehensive Legalization

Illinois now joins Washington, D.C. and 10 other states that have already legalized marijuana.

However, the state’s new law is a landmark in several ways. Illinois is the first state to legalize the sale of marijuana through its legislature rather than through a ballot initiative.

The 11 states that have legalized marijuana, not including Washington, D.C.

Illinois’ social equity program also represents one of the most comprehensive criminal justice reforms among states that have legalized marijuana.

Other states where cannabis is legal now have similar provisions, but those provisions were implemented separately after the states had already passed legalization.

Just last month Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law that will allow misdemeanor marijuana convictions given before the drug was legalized to be vacated. The move came nearly seven years after the state voted to legalize marijuana.

In February, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to clear all eligible marijuana convictions when officials announced that they would dismiss 9,362 charges dating back to 1975. Again, the move came more than two years after California legalized marijuana.

Illinois’ new legalization law, by contrast, is the first one that mandates such extensive expungement from the start.

See what others are saying: (Rolling Stone) (The Associated Press) (CNN)

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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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Biden To Block Trump’s Order Lifting COVID-19 Travel Ban

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  • President Trump issued an executive order Monday lifting a ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil. 
  • Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when the CDC will start requiring all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
  • The move was cheered by the travel industry; however, incoming White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki warned that Biden’s administration does not intend to lift the travel restrictions. 

Trump Order End To COVID-19 Travel Ban

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Monday ending his administration’s ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.

That ban was put in place last spring in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. In his announcement, however, Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go into effect.

Starting that day, the CDC will require all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.

The recommendation to lift the ban reportedly came from Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to Trump’s proclamation, “the Secretary reports high confidence that these jurisdictions will cooperate with the United States in the implementation of CDC’s January 12, 2021, order and that tests administered there will yield accurate results.”

It’s worth noting that the ban will stay in place for travelers from Iran and China. Still, Trump’s announcement was generally cheered by members of the travel industry who have been pushing to lift the ban and require preflight testing instead. 

Biden To Block Trump’s Order

Soon after the news broke, the incoming White House press secretary for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer Psaki, warned that Biden would block Trump’s order.

“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she wrote on Twitter.

“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.  In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.

With that, it seems unlikely that Trump’s order will actually take effect. 

It’s also worth noting that this is one of many executive orders Trump has issued just before inauguration day.

Source: Whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions

Some of these orders could soon be overturned once Biden takes office Wednesday. Biden is also expected to roll out his own wave of executive orders in his first 10 days as president.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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New COVID-19 Variant Could Become Dominant in the U.S. by March, CDC Warns

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  • The CDC warned Friday that a new highly transmissible COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.
  • The strain was first reported in the United Kingdom in December and is now in at least 10 states.
  • The CDC used a modeled trajectory to discover how quickly the variant could spread in the U.S. and said that this could threaten the country’s already overwhelmed healthcare system.

CDC Issues Warning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the new COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.

While it is not known to be more deadly, it does spread at a higher rate, which is troubling considering the condition the U.S. is already in. Cases and deaths are already on the rise in nearly every state and globally, 2 million lives have been lost to the coronavirus. 

The variant was first reported in the United Kingdom in mid-December. It is now in 30 countries, including the U.S., where cases have been located in at least ten states. Right now, only 76 cases of this variant have been confirmed in the U.S., but experts believe that number is likely much higher and said it will increase significantly in the coming weeks. It is already a dominant strain in parts of the U.K.

Modeled trajectory shows that growth in the U.S. could be so fast that it dominates U.S. cases just three months into the new year. This could pose a huge threat to our already strained healthcare system.

Mitigating Spread of Variant

“I want to stress that we are deeply concerned that this strain is more transmissible and can accelerate outbreaks in the U.S. in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC told the New York Times. “We’re sounding the alarm and urging people to realize the pandemic is not over and in no way is it time to throw in the towel.”

The CDC advises that health officials use this time to limit spread and increase vaccination as much as possible in order to mitigate the impact this variant will have. Experts believe that current vaccines will protect against this strain.

“Effective public health measures, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential,” the CDC said in their report.

“Strategic testing of persons without symptoms but at higher risk of infection, such as those exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or who have frequent unavoidable contact with the public, provides another opportunity to limit ongoing spread.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (New York Times) (NBC News)

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