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Does Recreational Weed Have a Chance in Illinois?

The political tide has turned against marijuana in recent months. So why are two state lawmakers introducing a legalization bill now?

Inside PharmaCann, LLC, a medical marijuana cultivation center in Dwight, Illinois.   Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

Last summer, things were looking up for legal marijuana advocates in Illinois. Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-led state legislature, who rarely agree on much, were able to compromise on a decriminalization bill that would reduce penalties for carrying small amounts of weed—a law that was praised on both sides of the aisle.

But things took a turn as Rauner blocked two bills that would have expanded medical marijuana use. To make matters worse, there’s a new attorney general in office; Jeff Sessions is strongly anti-pot and has vowed to review federal marijuana policies, leaving the country’s budding pot businesses in limbo.

So this spring might have seemed like an odd time for state senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and representative Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) to introduce twin bills in the Illinois legislature to legalize recreational weed.

Cassidy and Steans are cautiously optimistic, though they know they face significant barriers, including convincing their fellow lawmakers and dealing with shifting federal policy. Most importantly, they say, public support of legalizing cannabis is high. A Southern University of Illinois poll conducted in early March showed that 74 percent of respondents support the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, and 66 percent were in favor of recreational marijuana legalization if it is taxed and regulated like alcohol.

“People evolve much more quickly than politicians do,” Cassidy says “Our colleagues need to catch up and so does the governor, but that’s why Heather and I are going about this so methodically.”

Getting Springfield on Board

Their method starts with patience. Steans and Cassidy say they don’t expect to put either bill to vote this session, but they are starting a public conversation about legalization—hosting a series of hearings, the first of which was April 19 in Chicago. They’ve also spoken with lawmakers in other states that have legalized recreational marijuana, like Colorado, to learn from other programs in the country.

It’s a tough proposition in Illinois, since apprehension from lawmakers stretches across party lines, says Dan Linn, executive director of Illinois’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In toss-up districts, even commenting publicly on legalizing cannabis could leave politicians vulnerable to future campaign attack ads—especially if the legislation ultimately fails.

“Rather than see marijuana reform as a political opportunity, [legislators] tend to view it as a political liability,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML.

But the limited implementation of medical marijuana , Steans thinks, has warmed people up to the possibility of legalizing recreational cannabis. And since the medical marijuana and decriminalization bills have passed with bipartisan support, Steans hopes to do the same with recreational marijuana legalization.

Plus, at a time when Illinois lawmakers remain in a budget stalemate, the estimated revenue from legalizing pot could ease the state’s fiscal shortfall. An analysis from the Marijuana Policy Project found that the measure’s excise tax and sales tax could bring in an estimated $349 million to $699 million annually. It’s not yet clear what that’ll mean for the state’s tourism and other ancillary businesses, but the measure could bring in tourists from other states. The proposal currently allocates 30 percent of excise tax revenue to the State Board of Education, 20 percent to the Department of Public Health, and 50 percent to the general revenue fund.

The last hurdle, as with all legislation, would be Rauner, or whoever holds the governor’s office at the time. Last month, Rauner said that he doesn’t support legalizing recreational marijuana until “we study the ramifications of what’s happening in other states.” Steans and Kelly say they haven’t met with the governor yet, but welcome his input on the bill.  

Opposition from Law Enforcement

Terry Lemming, police chief of Lockport, is skeptical of legalization.

Lemming serves on the legislative committee for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. He wants lawmakers to proceed with caution, pointing to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s past warnings about potential unintended consequences of recreational weed. (More recently, Hickenlooper admitted that his worst fears never materialized and that his state’s pot experiment is “working.”)

“I’m afraid we might rush into something as dangerous and as deadly as the cigarette issue,” Lemming says. “Do we want another alcohol? It’s bad enough. Do we want another drug that’s going to cause people to crash [their cars]?”

The current proposal in Illinois would allow people 21 and older to buy recreational marijuana; Lemming says he’s concerned the proliferation of pot could lead to higher usage and accessibility for young adults. He also worries that legalizing cannabis would not eliminate the underground market, nor reduce crime. (An October 2016 study failed to show a relationship between adolescents’ use of marijuana and state laws regarding marijuana use; however researchers concluded that they need to conduct additional studies with larger and more representative samples.)

Still, Lemming says the police chief group is open to talking with lawmakers: “I don’t know if we can find any common ground. Maybe there is, but I don’t know,” he says. “We find it very difficult to be neutral on this bill… We think it’s bad public policy any way you look at it.”

It’s not surprising to hear the initial skepticism from officers, Cassidy says, but she and Steans would like to meet with them and hear their concerns. They note that they are aware of mishaps that occurred in Colorado, such as the lack of distinction between personal growing and industrial growth. They made sure to close any such loopholes in the current bill to make it easier for officers to differentiate between the two, she says.

“We had significant support [from law enforcement] for the [marijuana decriminalization] bill, but it took some work to get them there,” Cassidy says. “I think that we’ve established a good working relationship… There is an opportunity to hear them out, address their concerns and find a better path.”

Will the Federal Tide Turn?

Legalized pot has always been on thin ice, since federal law technically still prohibits it. The Obama administration made it clear that it wouldn’t interfere with state marijuana laws, but with a new regime in office, this could all change. Following his warning in February that states could see stronger federal enforcement of drug laws, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed a Justice Department task force to review charging, sentencing, and marijuana policies.

If the crackdown comes, it certainly won’t be popular, says Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel at the Marijuana Policy Project. Marijuana is now legal in some form in 30 states. A Pew Research survey conducted in fall 2016 showed that 57 percent of Americans say marijuana use should be legal, while 37 percent say it should be illegal. That’s a significant shift from a decade ago when 32 percent favored legalization and 60 percent opposed it.

“The direction that our country is heading in is not one that would be very supportive of the federal government going in and telling these states that they have to shut down,” he adds.

Cassidy also pointed to Trump’s ambiguity toward the issue during the presidential campaign as a sign that the federal government may not actually make a move on legalization legislation.

“I actually think that this is likely saber rattling that’s not going to amount to much,” Cassidy says. “I think that we need to continue to be mindful of what’s happening at the federal level but recognize that they’re way behind, too.”

A Long Road Ahead

As for the likelihood of the bill passing in Springfield, advocates say the bill could take another two to four years for it to be seriously considered. Armentano, deputy director of NORML, says getting the measure passed in Illinois is “a long shot at best.”

Though the 2016 decriminalization bill received bipartisan support and overcame Rauner’s amendatory veto, that measure was viewed by lawmakers as a better way of handling the minor offense, whereas the recreational cannabis bill could be misconstrued as outright “condoning of the behavior and allowing retail sales to take place,” says NORML’s Linn.

In conversations with lawmakers during NORML’s lobbying efforts in Springfield over the years, Linn says he thinks lawmakers aren’t ready to vote for legalization: “At least not now. Not yet.”

Any chance they’ll change their minds? He didn’t name names, but Linn reveals, some lawmakers admitted to using the substance in college (or in the ’60s) and don’t believe that the substance is that harmful.

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