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Toi Hutchinson works on ‘seismic policy shift’ as new state pot czar

Gov. J.B. Pritzker faced a monumental hiring decision in 2019 when he sought an official to oversee the new recreational cannabis program — the so-called pot czar. 

Pritzker needed a public servant who could administer day-to-day details of the massive new initiative that involves seven state departments governing regulation, cultivation, licensing, public health, criminal justice and more.

The person also had to understand community- and state-level impacts of such a societal shift.

Pritzker chose Toi Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields resident who served 10 years as Illinois senator for the 40th District, which includes Homewood and Flossmoor, and has been involved in Southland government for many years. 

Hutchinson helped draft the legislation allowing recreational cannabis, a policy shift that affects more than just whether people can legally smoke pot.

It’s an issue she’s studied for years, especially focusing on how marijuana laws disproportionately affected African-Americans and people in other minority groups, though statistics show equal usage rates among all demographics.

“This is bigger than whether you can have some fun,” Hutchinson said. “We’re legalizing an activity that destroyed communities through over policing. We’re vacating 770,000 cannabis convictions. All of those people get a shot at a new life.”

Hutchinson said she talked to residents across the state to consider the entire spectrum of opinions. Hutchinson said the time was right for Illinois to modernize its laws.

“Watching this industry and movement, there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it from growing,” she said. “We can get smart about it. The system (wasn’t) safe for anyone, with people buying unregulated, untested product on the street.”

While her new position brings excitement, Hutchinson said it also comes with tough work. The past 10 years prepared her, she said, and she tends to gravitate toward difficult tasks.

“I graduated from law school in 2014, while managing three kids and three campaigns, as a sitting senator,” Hutchinson said. “I dedicated my whole career to helping others, and the law degree was something I wanted to do for myself. 

“I have an amazing family structure, a husband who says, ‘Shoot for the moon, babe. I got you.’ I wanted to show my kids I could do it. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than a mom who doesn’t stop dreaming.”

In addition to her law degree, Hutchinson said she is proud of several legislative victories, including a law requiring Illinois institutions to test rape kits within 10 days. 

“The thought that women were re-traumatized again by having the rape kit done, and then it not be tested and not be available (in court); it broke my heart,” Hutchinson said.

Every year, she worked on an issue to improve the lives of women and children, including legislation related to domestic violence and sexual assault, especially how colleges report campus sexual violence.

One of Hutchinson’s proudest moments as a senator came in 2011 when she became chairwoman of the Illinois Senate Revenue Committee, then only the second woman to hold that position after Dawn Clark Netsch.

A few years into the role, the state experienced a prolonged budget crisis that forced Hutchinson to examine the state’s financial minutiae in a way she never had before.
“I am extremely proud that I buckled in and studied it,” Hutchinson said. “I didn’t get elected to watch the state spiral down the drain. I got elected to fight.”

Through the fights and victories, Hutchinson said she fell in love with the institution of the Illinois legislature.

“It’s a profound place to be,” she said. “I’m proud of the relationships I built. I created dear friendships.”

While her new position takes her to the Thompson Center downtown, Hutchinson enjoys staying in Olympia Fields, where she lives with her husband, Paul. The couple has three young adult children.

Hutchinson makes time to visit favorite local spots, including Flavor restaurant in Richton Park and Redwood restaurant in Olympia Fields, where visitors can order a Toi-Tini, a martini named in her honor.

“I told them, ‘Don’t make it too sweet, because I’m not that sweet.’ I’m still me, Toi Hutchinson from the South Suburbs,” she said. “I’m still right where I was before, working on another seismic policy shift.”

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