Illinois is really close to legalizing marijuana … or is it?

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Some 57,837 Illinois residents can legally use cannabis under Illinois’ medical marijuana program, but for adults without a chronic condition like glaucoma, pain, or PTSD, it’s still against state law.  

A package that would legalize cannabis for all adults is forthcoming; state Sen. Heather Steans says she and Rep. Kelly Cassidy (both are Democrats from Chicago) expect to introduce draft language by the end of April – enough time, Steans said, for legislators to digest and vet it, with a vote expected before the legislative session adjourns at the end of May.

“The people of Illinois need smart, sensible adult use cannabis legislation. We can’t wait any longer. Every day Springfield waits it hurts our state,” said Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1, at a recent press conference organized by the Legalize Illinois coalition.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritkzer is counting on Illinois to legalize recreational marijuana as part of his proposed spending plan.

“By legalizing and regulating adult-use cannabis in this legislative session, we will create jobs and bring in $170 million in licensing and other fees in fiscal year 2020,” Pritkzer said in his February budget address. “I don’t view this issue through a purely financial lens. I think we should take this action for our state because of the beneficial criminal and social justice implications and the jobs it will create. And let’s be honest, like it or not, cannabis is readily available right now. I would rather the state tax it and regulate it than deny the reality of its use and accessibility.”

Working groups – legislators, key members of Pritkzer’s staff, and interest groups on both sides of the issue – are meeting regularly to try to work out details.

While Pritkzer campaigned on legalizing recreational marijuana, and a March poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute showed 66 percent of voters favor it, it could be tough to pass out of the General Assembly.  

Sixty legislators signed on as sponsors of a resolution sponsored by Democratic Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines that calls for slowing down the process.

“Lawmakers should not rush irresponsible legislation purely for tax revenues … but should consider the health and safety of Illinoisians as their first priority,” House Resolution 157 reads.

While the resolution is non-binding, enough representatives have signed on that at least some will need to be convinced to vote “aye” on an eventual legalization bill in order for it to achieve the 60 votes needed to pass in the Illinois House.

“We’re just now start into get information from the states that have (legalized marijuana),” Moylan said Monday. “We can’t make decisions that are going to affect the whole population of the state of Illinois in weeks. Come on.”

But first, drafters need to finalize outstanding issues. Among them: how to decide who is eligible for a license to grow and sell cannabis; whether individuals will be permitted to grow marijuana at home; whether there’s anywhere individuals should be allowed to use, smoke or otherwise take cannabis outside the home; how to handle expunging the criminal records for offenders found guilty of possessing or selling marijuana prior to legalization; and even how to deal with “what ifs” surrounding workers’ compensation and employers’ liability for employees found to have THC in their systems, and how law enforcement should handle impaired drivers considering there’s no cannabis test equivalent to an alcohol breathalyzer.

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Advocates for legalizing cannabis say permitting people to grow at home is a key demand, so a product that may be expensive isn’t out of reach.

Police see it differently.

“Our position is, you eliminate many of the benefits of regulation if you allow home-grows,” said Ed Wojcicki with the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. He said it’s turned other states into the “wild west.”

The trucking industry also has safety concerns; even if Illinois makes it legal to use cannabis, it’s still against federal law – and truckers are subject to random testing per the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“It’s hard enough to keep drivers,” Don Schaefer, with the Mid-West Truckers Association. “If you’re a truck driver, if you’re an airline pilot, if you’re an engineer, what have you, you’re go into be subject to these tests and if you test positive, you’re out of a job. We already have a shortage of drivers.”

Schaefer says for as much as advocates talk about the potential to raise revenue through legalizing pot, “we don’t hear anything – or enough – about the social implications that could be involved with this. The side effects.”

Even those who can legally use cannabis under Illinois’ medical marijuana program are not permitted to do so in public.

That sort of restriction could hamper recreational sales, particularly when it comes to tourism given that most hotels bar smoking or marijuana use, as do some landlords.

“It really makes sense that you have a safe space to go and consume it. Now we’re talking about consumption lounges … like a cigar lounge or a hookah lounge,” said Edie Moore, with the Chicago Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

When it comes to who deserves access to licenses to grow or dispense cannabis, companies that spent hefty sums to get in on Illinois’ strict medical marijuana program are seeking to keep that advantage.

But Pritkzer and Steans have been clear that they’re looking at the business side through the prism of equity.

As it stands now, businesses are “very white-owned” Steans said. “We really want to make sure we’re creating new avenues of entry” so that “neighborhoods disproportionally affected by the war on drugs have a chance to get into the industry.”

That could mean limiting the number of licenses any particular ownership group can have, or giving preferences to local ownership so licenses don’t just go to “big, outside players” that can front a lot of cash up-front.

It seems certain that any eventual measure will contain expungement language aimed at clearing misdemeanor or low-level felony records associated with cannabis.

But Illinois’ disparate, localized court records system could make that logistically difficult.

Wojcicki said recent discussions called for expunging records as far back as the 1970s, which “predates computerized records,” making it difficult for local police departments and county clerks to easily filter them.

“We’re not totally opposed to it, we just see there are problems,” he said.

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