ILLINOIS (WCIA) — The highly anticipated plan to make Illinois the eleventh state in the nation to legalize marijuana for recreational use came into clearer focus after a town hall discussion at the public Lincoln Library on Monday night.
The current version of the plan would allow legal possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana for Illinois residents age 21 and over, allow each household to grow up to five plants indoors, ban public consumption, outlaw impaired driving, and revoke drivers’ licenses from teens caught using cannabis. The proposal would also allow local governments to opt out, and it would let landlords restrict or prohibit use of marijuana on their properties.
Senator Heather Steans and Representative Kelly Cassidy, the two statehouse Democrats leading the effort in the statehouse, answered written questions from the crowd as Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) moderated, and asked a few questions of his own.
“I’m advocating for doing it the right way,” Manar said when asked where he stands on the measure, but added that he “may end up not voting for it if it’s called for a vote.”
The downstate Democrat repeated questions from the crowd, including some from his constituents who raised concerns about potential risk of exposing young children to THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Others expressed fears that more impaired drivers might take to the roads.
Steans and Cassidy assured the capacity audience that their bill would keep measures in place to penalize people who drive under the influence of cannabis, but also noted that 780,000 Illinois residents reported using marijuana in the last month, and some of them may have already driven impaired, despite the strict laws against it.
The panel favored some form of law enforcement device to track or monitor for traces of THC in motorists pulled over and suspected of getting behind the wheel while high.
“If there’s a way to do it, of course we would want to do that,” Manar said.
However, “There is not a .08 equivalent,” Cassidy explained. Steans suggested a portion of the expected revenue could go to pay for police to stock up with new, high-tech roadside testing units.
Some companies have undertaken efforts to develop a sort of ‘pot breathalyzer,’ though the product is not yet widely embraced by law enforcement. In addition to requiring a suspect to ‘walk the line,’ Cassidy suggested officers could test blood, saliva, or urine, although those methods are not always reliable or consistent.
Varying revenue estimates project the state could capture anywhere between $350 million to $700 million per year, but the lawmakers preached caution to those who hoped the extra tax stream would solve the state’s budget woes.
“We have to be very careful,” Manar told WCIA before the event began. “While revenue will be produced for the state if this is enacted, it’s not going to solve our budgetary problems. We have structural problems with our budget in the state.”
“It’s not a magic ATM machine,” Cassidy warned.
“This bill can’t solve all problems,” Steans said, citing “years of underinvestment” in mental health and substance abuse centers, and describing the marijuana sales tax as a “limited revenue pool.”
Steans and Cassidy further explained their preliminary plan would allow local governments to collect an additional local sales tax, and recommended revenues from the tax on marijuana should go to pay for law enforcement, public education, substance abuse treatment, and restorative justice programs to reverse the ills of the War on Drugs.
The pair of Democrats boasted of bipartisan support in both the Illinois House and Senate. Republican Tim Butler, a state representative from Springfield, attended the event. Butler later said he’s “not there yet, but definitely trying to be a part of the conversation to ensure it is a strict structure.”
Dissenting groups also attended the town hall to distribute materials designed to discourage public support.
Anita Bedell, the Executive Director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, argued the plant would cost the state more in societal setbacks than it is worth in additional revenue.
“If you make something legal, you make it acceptable, you make it accessible, more people are going to start using the drug,” she said, warning of broader access for children and teenagers. “Same thing with alcohol. It’s just going to be another big social mess for our state.”
Bedell questioned the accuracy of the studies presented by marijuana advocates which show youth usage rates have decreased in ten of the 11 states which have enacted legalization measures.
“We have studies that show just the opposite of what they said,” she countered.
Bedell did not provide the data or methods of those studies, but instead pointed to news reports of a woman arrested for breastfeeding her baby while high, and another business owner in Denver who pleaded guilty to buying marijuana in mass amounts to resell at a markup on the black market.
Another group which calls itself ‘Healthy and Productive Illinois,’ a coalition of law enforcement, trucking companies and local housing authority groups, distributed flyers which warned of higher marijuana related hospitalization rates in Colorado.
Cassidy downplayed the critics and their research, saying, “I can give you a study to prove any conclusion.”
“A lot of what you hear, you end up hearing, you know, ‘X went up 500 percent,'” she said. “But if you read the methodology, they weren’t measuring before.”
“All of the studies that are coming out that talk about these increases, they’re going from zero to ten,” Cassidy said. “When you didn’t have that thing measured in the year before, you can’t say that it increased by 500 percent. Your knowledge of it increased, but the action itself didn’t necessarily increase.”
Still, the proposal includes strict packaging requirements for dispensaries to prevent children from accessing the consumer products.
“This is not your grandfather’s ziplock baggie,” she said. “The packaging rules are the real deal and they make a difference.”
“We really don’t want teens doing this,” Steans said. “This is not good for developing brains.”