Pubdate: Sun, 07 Jun 2015
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2015 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Robert McCoppin


State's Path Similar to Others That OK'd Recreational Use

Recent victories at the state Capitol are giving marijuana advocates 
hope that their ultimate goal - to legalize pot in Illinois - may be 
closer to reality.

With a medical pot program underway and lawmakers voting last month 
to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of the drug, 
Illinois is following a path that three other states have taken 
toward legalization. Alaska, Colorado and Oregon rolled out medical 
marijuana and loosened pot penalties before approving the drug for 
recreational use

Advocates caution that it could be years before Illinois takes 
further steps toward legalization. And some of the same politicians 
and lobbying interests who pushed for medical marijuana say 
legalization is not on their agendas. Still, activists believe - and 
some national polls suggest - the tide is turning.

At least five states have efforts underway to hold public votes this 
year or next on legalizing pot. But in Illinois, only the General 
Assembly, not voters through a statewide referendum, could act to 
legalize pot.

Still, advocates say the votes elsewhere could show politicians that 
the public supports the idea.

"It's a matter of when is the right time to file a bill," said Dan 
Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the pro-marijuana 
group NORML, who correctly predicted passage of the decriminalization 
bill in May.

"It takes a lot more time than people realize."

Pew public opinion polls show that a slight majority of voters 
nationwide favor legalizing marijuana. But Illinois lawmakers have 
shown little appetite for doing so. Democratic Sen. Michael Noland 
and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who sponsored the decriminalization bill, 
said they had no interest in pursuing legalization now. And Rep. Lou 
Lang, a Skokie Democrat who sponsored the medical marijuana bill, 
said he also is not pursing legalization.

"My only purpose was to help sick people," Lang said. "We ought to 
see how this rolls out, then determine if legalization is something 
we want to do, but that is not part of my current agenda."

Before considering legalization, Gov. Bruce Rauner must consider the 
decriminalization bill.

The measure would fine people up to $125 for possession of up to 15 
grams of pot rather than arrest them and jail them for up to a year. 
Possession of up to 500 grams would be a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Previously, the city of Chicago approved a similar measure, and Cook 
County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez recently announced that her 
office would no longer prosecute small-possession cases.

Decriminalization passed easily in the state House and Senate, but 
not everyone likes the idea. Some lawmakers wanted to add mandatory 
treatment for repeat offenders.

Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs 
of Police, has come out against decriminalization. He said it will 
likely lead to more people committing crimes or accidentally hurting 
themselves while high.

Wojcicki also said that police have serious hurdles to reliably 
identifying drivers under the influence of pot.

But those who work in the industry believe the public will see that 
prohibition causes more harm than regulation. License holders for the 
current medical marijuana program hope that they will get first crack 
at any expansion of the industry.

Kris Krane, co-founder of 4Front Advisors, an industry consultant, 
said it will take time and success at the ballot box for Illinois 
lawmakers to be convinced that marijuana is no longer a controversial 
"third rail," Krane said.

"Voters are light-years ahead of politicians on this issue," he said.

Other states are also ahead of Illinois. Rhode Island lawmakers are 
considering a bill to legalize pot. Vermont last year commissioned a 
study of legalization by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

While the center did not make a recommendation, it emphasized that 
legalization is not a simple yes or no question. Rather, states can 
make their own rules on who is allowed to produce or sell pot, and 
under what restrictions.

Some states have also looked at regulating pot like alcohol or 
allowing adults to grow their own.

A Rauner spokesman said the governor is considering whether to sign 
the decriminalization bill. Rauner has called for reducing the 
Illinois prison population by 25 percent within 10 years, but it's 
not clear whether he would seek to change pot laws to help accomplish that.

In Springfield, where lawmakers are facing off over a huge budget 
deficit, marijuana is a side issue right now, said Paul Green, a 
Roosevelt University professor of public administration.

He acknowledged that the revenue that legalization would generate 
could eventually become a tempting factor in resolving that debate.

In Colorado, which has less than half the population of Illinois, 
recreational and medical marijuana generated more than $50 million 
last year in taxes, according to state records.

Steve Gormley, chief business development officer of consultant OSL 
Holdings, compared the social momentum of the movement to that of gay 
marriage but said the legislative process may come down to a matter 
of finances.

"The industry is very leery of how politics plays out in this state," 
he said. "The politics of Illinois is all about the almighty dollar." 
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom