At their year-end meeting last December, commissioners unanimously voted to approve a referendum in the upcoming primary on whether or not recreational marijuana will remain illegal in Cook County—adding Chicago to a long list of cities that have begun rethinking policies concerning marijuana. Although the referendum is only advisory (meaning that pot would not automatically become legal if the question is approved in March), proponents of legalization believe that a strong turnout of supporters could help them make their case in Springfield, where they hope further legislative action can be taken. However, as has been seen across the nation for the past several years, public sentiment is just one of the many obstacles standing between lawmakers and complete marijuana legalization.
In 2013, Illinois became the twentieth state to legalize marijuana for medical use, citing thirty specific medical conditions for which the drug could be used as a treatment. Currently, there are about twenty thousand Illinois residents enrolled in the state’s medical program, making gross revenues of over $67 million since its inception. In 2015, Illinois lawmakers began the gradual process of decriminalization by replacing a misdemeanor designation for minor pot possession with a $100-200 fine.
In a recent poll conducted by Southern Illinois University, two-thirds of registered Illinois voters supported legal, recreational weed. However, though recreational marijuana has has popular public support, Illinois lawmakers have run into a policy barrier: while medicinal marijuana is now relatively non-controversial and easy to regulate, legalizing weed full-stop carries a number of related legislative questions that must be resolved if a legal recreational marijuana program is to be successful.
On one hand, Illinois could surely benefit from extra revenue, given its current $250 billion debt for state and local pension programs. With Illinois’ debt being relegated to “junk status” by the S&P Global Ratings, there has been increasing pressure on lawmakers to take action to fix the state’s balance sheet.
Other states that have legalized marijuana have shown that an adequate amount of taxation could be the perfect way to reduce this deficit. California, for example, could see tax revenues on the order of $1 billion per year, while Colorado’s government raked in a little over $500 million in 2016.
However, there is a thin tightrope to walk when it comes to pot taxation, since too high a tax could cause buyers to revert to illegal avenues for drug purchasing. “One of the lessons of other states is you don’t lessen the black market if you don’t get taxation right,” stated Senator Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields). Cook County lawmakers have trod a rocky path recently when it comes to taxation, repealing their infamous soda tax only two months after it took effect. If lawmakers levy too high a tax on marijuana, they could see a similar backlash.
Beyond taxation, there is also a question of how much an impact legalizing weed will have on reversing the adverse impacts of Illinois’ so-called “War on Drugs.” According to Commissioner John Fritchey, Illinois’ previous policy of arresting and incarcerating individuals for relatively minor drug offenses constituted a “grave injustice.” Speaking in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, he said, “All these people are still left with an arrest record, which makes it very difficult for them to seek employment, to seek housing … things along those lines.” Fritchey also believes that allowing pot to be sold in a legal marketplace will dramatically reduce Illinois’ expenditure on anti-drug law enforcement agencies, which could save the state millions of dollars long-term.
This proposal, however,flies directly into the firing line of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A longtime opponent of marijuana legalization, Sessions has used almost every single legislative power available to him in an effort to prevent certain states from implementing lax marijuana policies.
In a May 2017 letter, Sessions personally requested that congressional leaders repeal the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment in order to let the Justice Department prosecute providers of medical marijuana. After widespread criticism, Sessions defended the letter on both legal and moral grounds, stating that it both comported with existing federal law and was needed, “particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime.”
While several lawmakers were quick to discount Sessions’ rhetoric, they will nonetheless have to address some of his concerns if they want to make a marijuana bill palatable to country voters. Moreover, if legislators wish to eventually extend marijuana legalization to the entire state, one of the major sticking points for opponents will almost certainly be the country’s ongoing heroin epidemic, which claimed fifty-nine thousand lives in 2016 alone.
Of course, there is a clear consensus among medical professionals that it is practically impossible to overdose from smoking marijuana; however, the issue lies not so much in the drug itself, but rather in the precedent. At a time when the health of the nation is at the forefront of both social and political dialogue, Cook County’s government cannot be seen as condoning yet more harmful, detrimental behavior.
Lawmakers will also have to address concerns about road safety and employee rights. Like other states that have already legalized weed, local police must implement a more safe and efficient method for determining if someone is driving under the influence of marijuana; the penalties for such an action must also be taken into reconsideration by lawmakers. Additionally, in the current job market, many employees are often subject to random drug testing, and a recreational marijuana law must take those tests into consideration.
When it comes to the prospect of legal marijuana in Illinois, it’s safe to say you shouldn’t be holding your breath. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle will have to negotiate in a political minefield for at least the next year before any real action can be taken. However, this year’s referendum will nonetheless be a useful way to engage voter support as the highly anticipated midterm election season comes into view.
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