CHICAGO — In September, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration made a splash by announcing Toi Hutchinson would oversee the implementation of Illinois’ new recreational cannabis program, laid out in landmark legislation the then-state senator played a key role in drafting.
A Pritzker spokeswoman said in a Sept. 26 email that Hutchinson’s salary would be $220,000, and that “the title is in statute so it’s Illinois Cannabis Regulation Oversight Officer,” a job quickly dubbed “pot czar."
But when Hutchinson officially started work for the administration Nov. 4, it was as “Senior Adviser to the Governor on Cannabis Control.”
It’s unclear when the decision was made to give Hutchinson the senior adviser title. But appointing her to the job created in legislation she voted on could have run afoul of the state constitution.
The constitution bars members of the General Assembly from being “appointed to a public office which shall have been created or the compensation for which shall have been increased by the General Assembly during that term.”
The provision is aimed at “making sure they had separation of powers” among the branches of government, said Ann Lousin, a law professor at the John Marshall Law School at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a legal researcher for the constitutional convention that drafted the 1970 Illinois Constitution.
The governor’s office did not directly respond to questions of whether the constitutional provision was a factor in installing Hutchinson in the senior adviser job after saying weeks earlier she would be the new Illinois cannabis regulation oversight officer.
The administration said in one statement provided in response to questions from the Chicago Tribune that the provision would not apply to the senior adviser position Hutchinson holds, and in another: “Toi Hutchinson was not appointed to the position of Illinois Cannabis Regulation Oversight Officer," directly contradicting the September email from Pritzker’s office.
WATCH THE VIDEO OF GOV. PRITZKER SIGNING CANNABIS LEGISLATION
Pritzker’s office said the distinction in the new job is that it is within the governor’s office, rather than in a separate state agency.
“What happened here is that we decided, after the passage of the law and once we started implementation efforts, that the big-picture oversight of the cannabis work required someone inside the governor’s office to help coordinate and prioritize all of the various agency-level work and to handle the high-profile outreach that will be necessary as we work to ensure the success of the equity provisions in the law,” the governor’s office said in a statement issued Nov. 21. “The governor felt that Ms. Hutchinson was the most qualified person to do that job.”
In a text message, Hutchinson confirmed her title was “Senior Adviser” and said she didn’t have anything to add beyond what was provided to the Tribune by the governor’s office.
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The General Assembly’s approval of the state’s recreational cannabis program marked one of several victories lawmakers delivered to the first-term Democratic governor during the legislative session this year. Pritzker signed the legislation into law this summer, and in the months since, the state has been preparing for the massive policy change, leading up to the scheduled Jan. 1 start of legal recreational marijuana sales.
A Democrat from south suburban Olympia Fields, Hutchinson spent a decade in the state Senate before resigning her seat this fall to take the new job with the administration. Hutchinson has been a fierce advocate for Illinois’ cannabis law to have a strong social justice framework, including provisions that allow people to have low-level marijuana convictions expunged and measures designed to help minority-owned businesses enter the industry.
"We have a whole industry that's treating it like the gold rush, but you have generations of folks who are still living with all the impacts of what the criminal justice system did to them," Hutchinson said in March. “It’s unfair to discuss this in any other way.”
Hutchinson’s senior adviser position in the governor’s office tasks her with “working closely with stakeholders around Illinois as well as state agencies to ensure that Illinois’ cannabis legalization continues to be at the forefront of equity, safety and social justice nationally,” the governor’s office said. Her salary remains $220,000 per year.
In late September, the governor’s office said Hutchinson would return the campaign contributions she’d received from the medical cannabis industry. Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in an email that has happened.
“The funds were returned to the donors,” Abudayyeh said.
The state is now out to hire a new Illinois cannabis regulation oversight officer. The salary is not specified but will “be determined by the candidate’s background and experience,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
The oversight officer job will be housed within the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, and will report to the department director, as well as the senior adviser to the governor on cannabis control, according to the governor’s office.
The law allows the oversight officer to have a staff of up to five, gives the authority to make policy recommendations, and tasks them with collecting data on the cannabis industry, overseeing coordination of efforts among the involved state agencies and promoting “best practices for ensuring diversity."