Toi Hutchinson, the new President and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project, on being a mother and a lawmaker, and tackling tough conversations with kids about cannabis.

Toi Hutchinson grew up understanding that cannabis wasn’t something you openly talked about in the home. The former Illinois state senator recalls that her father consumed it but would never call the plant by its name.

“He’d just say, ‘Go get the box,’” she says.

In January, Hutchinson, 49, joined the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) as its new President and CEO. Marijuana Policy Project is one of the leading nonprofit organizations working on cannabis policy reform in the U.S. Hutchinson, at the helm, brings her experience in three tiers of the cannabis conversation: legislation, implementation, and advocacy. She is one of the few people in the country with this breadth of experience.

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The illegal status of cannabis has long made it a controversial subject. Critics, at best, satirize cannabis or, at worst, demonize it. Yet, things are changing as many states look toward the future of legalization. For parents, this brings up a question many have avoided: How do you discuss what’s long been taboo?

For Hutchinson, she is honest about her advocacy work and personal liking for cannabis, but she wasn’t always like that. When she had children of her own, she repeated her father’s approach of not talking about cannabis.

“I was like a lot of parents who used [cannabis], consumed it, and hid it from the kids because you didn’t know how to talk about it,” the mother of three says.

Her children are now adults, but she clearly remembers how they faced different situations than she did.

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“By the time my children were in school, nobody was sneaking flasks into the bathroom … they were taking vape pens,” the Illinois native says. “And they were getting really, really comfortable with hiding cannabis use through edibles and other ways that don’t leave a distinct odor. So, it was like, ‘I have to change the way I talk about this.’”

Hutchinson started talking to her kids about cannabis when they got to high school. Those discussions became more extensive when she began taking on policy work around the plant. One of the most in-depth conversations she had was with her eldest son before he went away to college in 2014. The discussion was largely centered on him being a young Black man and law enforcement around cannabis.

Now she is totally open about her advocacy work, her consumption, and her opinions about cannabis. As a parent, she realized it was essential to discuss cannabis because two things will change a young person’s life: drugs and sex.

“Those can’t be the things we don’t talk about,” she says. “If the mission is to protect children, we’ve got to be in the middle of it. You can’t control what’s in the shadows.”

Hutchinson thinks honesty is one of the most important things when communicating with and protecting children, and that we should have data-driven conversations about cannabis with those we love because hypocrisy and stigma around the plant are real and can have harmful effects on how policy is handled.

Entering the Political Sphere

Before Hutchinson entered politics, she was a stay-at home mom and volunteered in her community in the south suburbs of Chicago. She told In the Arena podcast that she was similar to most women who go into elected politics. “We’re active on the ground in the neighborhoods, and you see something you want to fix,” she says.

Hutchinson served as a clerk for the Village of Olympia Fields municipality and later ran for a township position. Her path ultimately led her to serve in the Illinois State Senate from 2009 to 2019. During that time, she sponsored or co-sponsored 545 bills that became law. She has advocated for reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, criminal justice reform, and better tax policies. She also received a law degree from Northern Illinois University College of Law in 2014, while in office.

Her focus turned to cannabis policy when she joined Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker as his senior adviser on Cannabis Control after her time in the Senate. She worked alongside the Marijuana Policy Project to fight for legalization efforts. In 2019, Illinois became the first state to legalize cannabis for recreational use through the state Legislature (the alternative to a ballot initiative brought forth by constituents).

As for her children, they are very proud of her.

“I was really excited when it became a focus of hers because, from the beginning, when they were working on the bill, she was very vocal about all the work that still needed to be done with equity and criminal justice reform,” Hutchinson’s son, Paul Hutchinson Jr., says. “Early on I got the sense that not only is this a really fun and cool area of focus, but it has really deep and impactful roots.”

Though Hutchinson had worked closely with MPP to write and pass the statute that legalized recreational cannabis in Illinois, her move to the organization came unexpectedly.

“You would have knocked me over with a feather if you said, ‘You’re going to be in cannabis,’” she says, laughing. “Yes, I always said I’d be involved in policy. Yes, I thought I’d be involved in politics. That [cannabis] was going to be the topic, that was a surprise. But that’s the best way to make God laugh. Tell him what you want to do.”

“This is birthing a new industry, and that means we’re in labor, and labor hurts, and contractions are necessary, and it isn’t perfect all the time,” she says. “It’s hard, and the only way I know to get through it is to push.”
- Toi Hutchinson

A More Equitable Future

Founded in 1995, MPP is a two-part organization that includes a foundation and a national nonprofit. The foundation focuses on education and advocacy, and the national nonprofit side works on laws and policies. Out of the 18 adult-use legalization laws on the books in the U.S., MPP played a role in 10 of them, according to the organization’s website.

MPP thinks lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill are essential for the long-term goal of ending prohibition. The organization places a large focus on social justice, at both the state and federal levels, as well as criminal justice reform.

Karen O’Keefe, the director of state policies at MPP, has worked at the organization for 20 years and was part of the advocacy effort with Hutchinson to legalize cannabis in Illinois.

“Toi [Hutchinson] is exactly the leader MPP—and the larger movement for cannabis justice—needs,” O’Keefe says. “Toi’s background … is invaluable to our work to tear down cannabis prohibition state-by-state and nationwide. But it’s her passion, empathy, and moral clarity that inspires me the most—and provides me the most comfort that MPP won’t lose sight of our why.”

Alongside Hutchinson, O’Keefe is interested in changing how cannabis is handled in the legal system. A cannabis conviction can have cascading consequences. Job applications, rental applications, and even university applications could require a person to list any convictions on their record. For some people, even the question itself could hinder them from applying, O’Keefe says.

And the benefit resulting from criminal justice reform cannot be understated. MPP’s efforts to legalize cannabis have had sweeping effects of positive change, especially for communities that long suffered racial injustice. For example, since legalization in Hutchinson’s home state of Illinois, almost half a million low-level cannabis offenses have been expunged or pardoned.

Adult-use cannabis sales first began in 2014, in Colorado and Washington. Since then more than 18 states have adopted adult-use laws, creating a combined total of $10.4 billion in tax revenue, according to a recent impact report from Marijuana Policy Project. In many cases, tax revenue dollars from cannabis sales are put toward public school education.

“You directly have new schools built, more resources for students,” O’Keefe says. “Because instead of pushing this all underground, it’s taxed and regulated.” To see the benefits of cannabis legalization is also to recognize the lingering hypocrisy and stigmas that still exist, Hutchinson points out.

MPP believes non-violent or low-level drug crimes shouldn’t result in incarceration. Rather, the organization advocates for civil fines and drug education. This approach can also course-correct the bias against communities of color that have disproportionately been affected by outdated cannabis laws, Hutchinson says.

“When you see [cannabis] connected to white people, it’s funny. When you see it connected to us, it’s not,” Hutchinson says. “Now it’s about laziness and stereotypical behavior and crime and punishment, and the destruction of whole communities that look like us. So we don’t have the luxury of raising our children in a way that allows them to make childish mistakes … Our punishments are harsher.”

This issue hits close to home for Hutchinson.

“I have two African American sons who are over 6 feet tall,” she says. “The minute they walk off my porch, I need to teach them to be safe. I need to teach them how they have to operate in the world. And, when it relates to this, it won’t always be fair.”

“You directly have new schools built, more resources for students,” O’Keefe says. “Because instead of pushing this all underground, it’s taxed and regulated.” To see the benefits of cannabis legalization is also to recognize the lingering hypocrisy and stigmas that still exist, Hutchinson points out.

Marijuana Policy Project believes incarceration for non-violent or low-level drug crimes shouldn’t result in incarceration. Rather, the organization advocates for civil fines and drug education. This approach can also course-correct the bias against communities of color that have disproportionately been affected by outdated cannabis laws, Hutchinson says.

“When you see [cannabis] connected to white people, it’s funny. When you see it connected to us, it’s not,” Hutchinson says. “Now it’s about laziness and stereotypical behavior and crime and punishment, and the destruction of whole communities that look like us. So we don’t have the luxury of raising our children in a way that allows them to make childish mistakes … Our punishments are harsher.”

This issue hits close to home for Hutchinson.

“I have two African American sons who are over 6 feet tall,” she says. “The minute they walk off my porch, I need to teach them to be safe. I need to teach them how they have to operate in the world. And, when it relates to this, it won’t always be fair.”

Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Hutchinson believes people need the language and tools to normalize the topic of cannabis.

“I think it’s just getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she says. “I’ve come across a lot of parents who are now talking about it more easily. And they’re still consuming [cannabis]. But that doesn’t mean they’re sitting and consuming it with their kids.”

She says knowledge isn’t permission—it’s power.

With laws around cannabis changing often, Hutchinson recommends training school administrators and resource officers. It’s her dream to be part of the conversation that strengthens the information, knowledge, and tools that go to parents and educators.

“So, parents are informed and armed, educators are informed and armed, so that we can create a safer society for all of us,” she says.

Positively changing the cannabis industry and how we talk about it won’t be easy. Hutchinson compares it to the labor of bringing a child into the world.

“This is birthing a new industry, and that means we’re in labor, and labor hurts, and contractions are necessary, and it isn’t perfect all the time,” she says. “It’s hard, and the only way I know to get through it is to push.”

A. D. Russ
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A.D. Russ received her BFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside and she is an MFA candidate at Antioch University. Her work has appeared in UC Riverside’s Mosaic Art and Literary Journal and in Endurance News. She resides in California where she teaches, is managing editor for Lunch Ticket, and is working on her memoir.