Medical Marijuana Is Legal In Illinois: Recreational Use Is Next On The State’s Agenda

JB Pritzker, Illinois' recently-inaugurated Governor Photo: Vishesh Anand/Illinois Public Media

Medical cannabis is legal in Illinois, and its use was expanded in August 2018 by making it an alternative to opioid painkillers. Since their inception in November 2015, the state’s 55 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries have sold more than $220 million worth of cannabis. That number is growing quickly: in the first nine months of 2018, medical cannabis brought $100 million of revenue to the state.

The recent expansion of medical marijuana use is likely to bring another massive wave of users and income. As of October 2018, only 46,000 Illinois residents qualified for the program, as only some conditions qualify patients for it, but that number is bound to increase dramatically even if a tiny fraction of patients switch from opioids to marijuana.

Recreational cannabis is illegal under Illinois state law, but enforcement is relatively lax. The Illinois Controlled Substances Act clearly states that the law does not seek to punish users. “It is not the intent of the General Assembly to treat the unlawful user or occasional petty distributor with the same severity as the large-scale, unlawful purveyors and traffickers,” the law reads. Possession of less than 100 grams of cannabis is a misdemeanor, and “casual deliveries” of cannabis are treated like possession to lighten punishment.

Punishment for selling or delivering cannabis is stricter, however: any amount more than 10 grams is considered a felony, with increasing fines and prison sentences depending on the amount. For selling more than 5,000 grams of cannabis, penalties may increase to as much as a $200,000 fine and 30 years in prison, but this could soon change.

JB Pritzker, recently elected governor of Illinois, is a staunch proponent of legalization. “The path forward for Illinois is clear: we need to legalize marijuana,” he writes on his website. “It would have real benefits for Illinois, including reducing opioid overdoses and bringing in much-needed revenue from taxation.” He also recognizes that people of color are disproportionately targeted for drug use, and that it is not fair to send consumers to prison. “It’s time to bring the era of mass incarcerations for minor drug offenses to an end,” he adds.

A recent study by the Illinois Economic Institute and the University of Illinois strengthens the new governor’s position: “If marijuana were legalized, regulated and taxed in Illinois, an estimated $1.6 billion would be sold in the state.” Economists also estimate that “taxpayers would save $18.4 million annually in reduced incarceration costs, law enforcement spending and legal fees.”

With overwhelming public support, a new governor in office and Democrats controlling both legislative chambers of the state, a bill legalizing cannabis in Illinois is very likely to pass. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Sponsors plan to introduce a new legalization bill in January and hope to get it passed before the session ends in May.”