Should Illinois Legalize Recreational Marijuana

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hayward

When it comes to easing restrictions on cannabis, Illinois has not been a pioneer. Medical marijuana was legal in 19 other states and the District of Columbia before state law allowed it here in 2013. Nine states and D.C. have gone beyond, legalizing the sale and use of recreational pot. Lawmakers in Illinois have hung back, letting other states lead the way. And that’s exactly the right approach.

The case for legalization is not one we dismiss. But there are good reasons not to rush into such a momentous decision.

Right now, Illinois is getting the benefit of a multitude of experiments in marijuana policy from the states that have jumped out in front. The information collected, mistakes made and lessons learned in these places should be of great value in determining the best policy. Playing it safe means taking our time.

The national movement toward treating marijuana more or less like alcohol is going strong. In 2005, a Gallup Poll found, only 35 percent of Americans favored full legalization; today, 60 percent do. In Illinois, a Simon Poll last year found, the figure is even higher: 66 percent.

Politicians are beginning to take heed. Last year, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a measure decriminalizing possession of small amounts of weed. Before, someone caught with a couple of joints faced a possible six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,500. Now, the penalty is a fine of $100 or $200.

The Democrats running for his job, meanwhile, would not stop there. When they appeared before the Tribune Editorial Board recently, they were asked if they favored allowing recreational cannabis. Five candidates said they did, with the sixth, Chris Kennedy, saying, “I don’t oppose legalization of marijuana.” (All acknowledge using it in their younger days.) Also in favor: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and her challenger, former Ald. Bob Fioretti.

In the General Assembly, Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, both Chicago Democrats, have held hearings on their legislation to allow what they call “adult-use marijuana.”

Aside from recognizing the policy merits and political advantages, all these supporters can see another big attraction: revenue. Steans and Cassidy propose to regulate marijuana and levy an excise tax on growers, as well as a sales tax for buyers. The Marijuana Policy Project says the state could reap $350 million to $700 million per year. The change also would reduce costs for law enforcement.

But serious thought also has to be given to the possible downside. In Colorado, it’s reassuring to see, teen use of pot has actually declined. Adult use has been stable.

A Denver Post investigation, however, found that “the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana has risen sharply since 2013,” the last year before legalization. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found no difference in crash fatality rates in Colorado and Washington compared with states that didn’t legalize. But that risk, and ways to counter it, are matters that justify caution in Illinois.

There is still a lot to be learned about the benefits and costs of legalization. Illinois may ultimately decide it’s a better option. But the important thing is not acting quickly. It’s acting wisely.