Legal pot may make way through the state legislature this year
by KEVIN GROSS
Some state lawmakers discussed the likely possibility of legalizing recreational marijuana due to changing attitudes about the drug’s consumption and the election of Governor J.B. Pritzker who has voiced support for legal weed.
"In the interests of keeping the public safe from harm, expanding true justice in our criminal justice system, and advancing economic inclusion, I will work with the legislature to legalize, tax and regulate the sale of recreational cannabis in Illinois," Pritzker said at his inauguration in January.
State Senator Heather Steans (D-7) and state Representative Kelly Cassidy (D-14), who have worked on the state’s legalization of pot for years, are expected to introduce new bills by the end of the current legislative session, according to Rose Ashby, who is the field director for both lawmakers, their legislation and research on marijuana.
The bills would aim to legalize possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana by people age 21 and older, or half of an ounce of marijuana for Illinois non-residents, and allow growing of up to five cannabis plants, Ashby said.
Legislation would also allow local jurisdictions the option to opt out of legalization or to create own local taxes while creating the framework for state regulation, taxation and testing of cannabis products. Ashby said that legislators are looking at creating separate licenses for marijuana cultivators, dispensaries, craft growers, processors and transporters and anticipate that existing medical dispensaries will be "dual use and sell to medical and (recreational) adult-use consumers."
The bills would build upon legislation that Steans and Cassidy had introduced during former Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration.
"Initially, they introduced what I would call a ‘placeholder’ bill. It didn’t have all of the ‘meat on the bones’ on the issue. They (Steans and Cassidy) have since spent what is becoming the last 2 years with extensive time in town halls, stakeholder meetings, talking to law enforcement, doctors, anyone in between," Ashby said. "Now that it’s a more realistic goal, we’ll have a new bill that will reflect the input we got."
Legal marijuana could bring in between $300 million and $750 million in annual tax revenue, according to Ashby. A separate study conducted by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute in November estimated about $525 million in annual tax revenue, based on a 26.25 percent tax rate.
Ashby said that the tax rate for marijuana sales is still being determined, but that the legislators would try not to overtax because "strategically if its too expensive you’ll keep people purchasing from the black and grey markets."
Ashby stressed a multi-pronged approach in the legislation that would tackle health and restorative justice aspects of drug prohibition, with the goal of getting "as close as possible" to automatically expunging convictions for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
State Senator Iris Martinez (D-20) said she welcomes the restorative justice approach to marijuana legalization.
"I’ve seen these issues because I deal with professional licensing," she said. "Men and women trying to renew their professional license might be denied for something minor that happened 20 years ago. It continues to work against them."
Changing attitudes on marijuana were reflected in the March 2018 primary election, when 63 percent of Cook County voters replied "yes" to an advisory referendum question on the ballot that asked if the state should legalize manufacture, cultivation and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinances.
"Voters overwhelmingly said yes to legalization, which might sway legislators who are on the fence," Martinez said. Unlike most other states that approved legalization through a ballot initiative, any legalization law would require the approval of the General Assembly and the governor.
"What I heard from many colleagues is that we have 40 (Democrat) members and we should be able to pass it in the Senate by around 36 (votes). I think there’s some Republicans on board too," Martinez said.
However, state Senator John Mulroe (D-10), who said he was "generally in favor" of recreational legalization, warned that "opinions are all over the place" regarding marijuana and that he wouldn’t assume every Democrat would vote in favor of legalization.
"The medical marijuana bill, which I personally thought was a no-brainer because we already prescribe much more serious drugs like opiates, barely got the minimum amount of votes to pass, only around 30 votes," he said. "People already were anxious about voting for that, and I’d anticipate more resistance (to recreational legalization)."
He said a potential roadblock could involve law enforcement concerns.
"We want to assuage their (law enforcement officers’) concerns about impaired driving, but you don’t necessarily want to charge people with impairment if they test positive from smoking 30 days ago," Mulroe said. "They might need to improve the technology for marijuana sobriety testing."
A study by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice Office of Research and Statistics reported that the number of fatalities where a driver tested positive for any cannabinoid more than doubled from 55 fatalities in 2013, the year that the state legalized recreational marijuana, to 139 in 2017, which accounted for 21 percent of all driving fatalities in 2017.
Ashby said that lawmakers are determining how large the dispensary market should be and that they may add language to the bill to ensure that minority business owners get a high share of dispensary licenses, but Mulroe warned about balance and the potential of alienating existing medical marijuana retailers who "paved the way for this next step" and "risked a lot more than those jumping into the (marijuana) industry right now."
Illinois could benefit by learning from the mistakes of the first states to legalize marijuana, Ashby said. Colorado, for instance, needed to revamp its laws regarding the marketing of marijuana edibles within the first 2 years of its bill, such as by banning cartoon characters on packaging, in order to lessen concerns that children might mistake them for candy or snacks.
"Also at first, they didn’t stipulate a serving size (with edibles). People were going to Colorado and buying a chocolate bar and, without knowing better, eating the whole thing," Ashby said. "They changed their laws to standardize the dose. Every edible, the corner of a chocolate bar is now a 10-milligram (of THC) dose. In any case, its standardized, and they started a campaign to ‘go low and go slow.’"