Legislators seek marijuana legalization

A group of legislators have called on the Illinois General Assembly to create a task force to develop legislation that would legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana in Illinois.

The legislators, county Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12) and state Representatives Kelly Cassidy (D-14), Michael Zalewski (D-23) and Christian Mitchell (D-26), maintain that creating a framework of marijuana legalization, regulation and taxation would address issues such as reducing drug-related crime and violence, freeing up police resources and providing revenue to the state.

"It is well past time to recognize that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has been a misguided failure with respect to marijuana laws and policies," Fritchey said. "The Illinois legislature should follow the successful lead of other states and start taking meaningful steps toward a workable framework to allow the responsible sale and use of cannabis."

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have some form of legalized marijuana, either for medical or recreational use, Fritchey said in a statement. In 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the use of recreational marijuana.

Colorado officials anticipate generating approximately $184 million in tax revenue in the first 18 months of the legalized sale of recreational marijuana, and $610 million in revenue from retail and medical marijuana sales, Fritchey said.

Marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States, and from 1975 to 2009 there were more than a million arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession in Illinois, with the majority of the cases being dismissed, Fritchey said.

"Every year we waste countless hours and taxpayer dollars processing and adjudicating these arrests, only to have the overwhelming majority of them be dismissed," Zalewski said. "In doing so, we are taking police officers off the streets and away from the areas where they are most needed. We need to focus our strained public safety resources on keeping violent offenders in jail and off the streets."

"Every time the city arrests somebody for simple marijuana possession, the resulting costs are borne by the county as the result of the necessary involvement of the county court system, sheriff’s office, state’s attorney’s office and oftentimes, public defender’s office," Fritchey said. "The fact that the overwhelming majority of these cases wind up being dismissed highlights the fact that the biggest impact of our current laws is to waste millions of tax dollars and to unnecessarily leave tens of thousands of people with an arrest record, adversely impacting their lives in many ways."

The legislators urged the formation of a task force that would solicit input from stakeholders, including law enforcement, medical professionals and academics, and review the laws and experiences in other state. They said that such a debate will favor a model in which marijuana is legal but taxed and regulated like other goods.

"History has demonstrated that changes in our laws and policies, either civil or criminal, take time to come to fruition, but they only happen through action not just rhetoric," Cassidy said. "By creating a task force now, it is our intention to ultimately introduce thoughtful legislation that addresses the many issues involved and pass a reasonable, comprehensive and enforceable law."

Fritchey said he will introduce the resolution at the Cook County Board meeting on May 21.