Illinois’ Legalized Pot Push Moving Forward: ‘Prohibition Plain Just Does Not Work’ | WBEZ
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Illinois’ Legalized Pot Push Moving Forward: ‘Prohibition Plain Just Does Not Work’

This year, Illinois is poised to become the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana for adults.

Last year, as a candidate, Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker gave the concept his full-throated backing, and both House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton are now on board.

That means the legislation appears to be facing no serious political obstacles as it has in the past. And if all goes as planned, the measure could be enacted as soon as July 1.

With specifics still being worked out, the plan’s lead legislative architects — state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, both Chicago Democrats — have been hosting hearings across the state to explain what a final deal may look like.

On Tuesday, Steans spoke to WBEZ about some of the bill’s likely main ingredients and, more broadly, what she sees as the main benefits in legalizing marijuana for the masses. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

On what a legalization law might look like

Illinois Sen. Heather Steans: This is for adult use. So age 21 and older would be able to then go in and legally purchase cannabis. The quantities would be about an ounce, 30 grams, for an Illinois resident, and only half of that, 15 grams, for a non-resident because you don’t want things being taken out of state. There would be no public consumption and no public lounges or anything like that. Home grow, whether we allow that, is still up for discussion and negotiation. ... The [local governments] should also have the ability to … opt out.

On whether Chicago will have marijuana retailers

Steans: You never know with whoever the incoming mayor is. There may be a change in stance or tone potentially. So I wouldn’t want to speak on their behalf. But to date, the city hasn’t indicated they would do that. They’re likely to be participating.

On how to tax marijuana, and revenue estimates

Steans: Well, that’ll still be a point of negotiation for sure. Certainly [a 30 to 37 percent tax rate] would be the high end Colorado had started higher but they brought it back down because they found in doing that, it has really helped reduce the illegal market, which is the goal. We really don’t believe this should be led by the desire for revenue. ... The estimates we’ve seen … have been anywhere between $350 million to $700 million [a year]. So, thinking somewhere around $500 million is appropriate.

On whether Illinois employers could still drug test workers  

Steans: Just like under the medical program, employers are still allowed to have a zero tolerance policies in place. They will still be allowed to. We’ll make that clear under the legislation under adult use. That’s going to be an employer’s decision.

On whether it’s politically possible to have legal pot by July 1

Steans: That’s the goal. Clearly it’s a different tone when you get the support of the governor, which we didn’t have before. … That all said, it’s still a big policy change. We’re spending a lot of time educating and will continue to do so our colleagues, and working with them about putting a bill in place that they feel comfortable supporting.

On why she supports legalization

Steans: When I first got into the legislature, we were just starting to debate medical cannabis programs. ... As I sort of had to start studying and learning about it to decide how I was going to vote on that, it came to me that prohibition plain just does not work, and that we really should be trying to go to a different structure overall around cannabis. I don’t think prohibition keeps it out of the hands of folks. In Illinois, you have 800,000 people who use cannabis on a regular basis. Ninety-eight percent are buying it from the illegal market. You don’t know what you’re buying. ... [With legalization,] you can get a safe product. You know what you’re getting, and it gets out of the hands of teens a lot better when you do it in a regulated fashion. I just think it’s better policy.

Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, WBEZ receives philanthropic support from the Steans Family Foundation.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.

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