With Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s support of recreational marijuana, state lawmakers are moving swiftly to add Illinois to the list of states that legalize the consumption, sale and growth of recreational cannabis.

What recreational marijuana in Illinois will look like is still unknown, but the talk of legalization has raised many questions from residents about local taxing, what agencies will handle the funding and who will benefit from the new revenue source, to name a few.

Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, spoke at a town hall meeting arranged by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, at the Lincoln Library on Jan. 28 to take questions about a bill that would legalize cannabis if passed.

Cassidy said there is a plan to allow local governments to place a tax on cannabis if they decide to allow recreational cannabis sales in their municipalities, but there will be a cap in place to avoid what happened in Pueblo, Colorado. “They put the maximum tax on they could, and their illicit market grew,” Cassidy said.

Ward 2 Ald. Herman Senor said “there are a lot of unknowns” about how the state will regulate recreational cannabis and who will or won’t benefit.  He said he also wants to know how it will impact those who have a permanent blemish on their record because of cannabis-related charges.

It’s “a free market society,” Senor said, and those who can afford to pay licensing fees and own a dispensary or cultivation center should be able to do so, but he sees disparities in who can receive licensing.

“You want everyone to be able to take advantage of it,” Senor said. “The way it’s set up now, only certain people can take advantage of it.”

NAACP Illinois president Teresa Haley opposes the bill and posed questions to the legislators during the town hall about how lawmakers intend to protect the jobs of those who use cannabis recreationally, allocate funding from recreational cannabis to those that have been “most harmed” and what lawmakers will do to assist minorities who want to own and operate dispensaries. Current law on medical marijuana prohibits employers from discriminating against patients with medical cards, but Steans said private employers will have discretion regarding policies for those who use cannabis recreationally.

Dan Linn, executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Illinois chapter, said another cannabis legalization bill in the House introduced by Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Champaign, includes language that would allocate revenue made from cannabis taxation back into areas that have been affected by the war on drugs, a point Cassidy addressed during the town hall.

Linn said other states that have included similar stipulations in their legislation were challenged in court, but he thinks including language in the statute that would allocate funds to low-income areas is necessary, despite potential lawsuits, because it’s important to distribute the opportunities in areas impacted by the war on drugs.

“That’s on top of trying to make sure the funding stays in the community and doesn’t go to some corporate owner who lives in some mansion somewhere,” Linn said.

Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner said she’s in favor of legalization and excited about attention the topic of recreational cannabis is receiving but knows that the road to legalization will require many discussions and some compromising.

“I do believe that as we move into these discussions about legalization of recreational marijuana it will also lead to discussions about the criminal use of marijuana, which I think has been extremely, extremely unfair,” Turner said, explaining that she doesn’t believe the use of marijuana should be considered a criminal offense.

As far as an increase in users once cannabis is legalized, Turner said she’s of the same opinion of most experts who don’t believe cannabis is a gateway drug. However, Linn said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were a slight increase because of accessibility.

“You might see a small increase in usage from tourism or maybe senior citizens who don’t have access to cannabis right now,” Linn said.  

Lindsey Salvatelli is an editorial intern with Illinois Times as part of the Public Affairs Reporting master’s degree program at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact her at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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