Illinois Lawmakers Seek Feedback On Legal Marijuana

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Photo Credit: GRANT MATTHEW

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy believes legalization of marijuana for recreational use could pass the Illinois House now, but supporters plan to keep working to win over skeptics, including Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“We have compelling data to show that prohibition hasn’t worked and the sky doesn’t fall when you (legalize),” said Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat. “This allows us to take a more commonsense approach to what is currently happening in our communities.”

Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans, a fellow Chicago Democrat, are the driving forces behind legislative efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in Illinois. They plan to debut a bill in February, though they don’t expect one to become law until at least 2019 — when Rauner may be out of office.

Despite Rauner’s opposition, a Central Illinois Republican is on board: state Sen. Jason Barickman, who sat alongside Cassidy and Steans in Bloomington on Monday to discuss legalization.

“It’s inevitable that this is going to be the law of the land,” said Barickman of legalization. “It’s prudent upon us as Republican lawmakers to sit at this table and help define what the safeguards are.”

The three legislators outlined how legalization could take money from illegal marijuana sales that fund crime, make the drug safer to use and bring sales tax revenue to the state’s strained coffers — without increasing use, including in teens, drivers and employees.

“(In Illinois) 750,000 are currently using, and we don’t anticipate that number is going to change,” said Cassidy. “Every kid in my kid’s high school knows how to get pot right now. … This will make it harder, not easier.”

The legislators’ approach would treat marijuana, in some ways, like alcohol: available legally only to those 21 years old or older, prohibited from public consumption and permitted for at-home production only in small amounts. Steans said the “grow your own” proposal may or may not be in the final bill.

For those who buy and sell marijuana, the process would be similar to the state’s medical program, which lets local dispensaries sell marijuana grown at cultivation centers across the state. Both facilities are state-certified and closely monitored with stringent access rules, and cultivation centers are ready to expand their business for recreational use, said Cassidy.

Steans said the proposal also could include limits on local sales tax for marijuana to prevent situations like in Colorado, where illegal marijuana sales undercut the pricing in the legal market and stayed strong.

Like in Colorado, Illinois schools could get a boost from legalization: The latest draft of the proposal suggested 30 percent of sales tax revenues go to the State Board of Education. Half would go to the general revenue fund and 20 percent to the Department of Public Health for abuse prevention and education.

“When you do big public education campaigns and let teens know what it does to you, they’re smart. They don’t want to impact their brains,” said Steans.

She said the bill could also pave the way to “more training standards for … the officer on the street to know if somebody may be using, and give better access to tools to detect.”

Cassidy and Steans hope to start with a series of town hall meetings on the proposed legislation, possibly including Bloomington-Normal.

“Every state besides Vermont that’s done this has done it by referendum, which means people who are for this are crafting (rules),” said Steans. “Doing this legislatively means we can go and meet with everybody, including law enforcement and people who don’t like this, and do the best regulatory structure possible. We have the ability to put strong controls in place.”

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