The 101st Illinois General Assembly convened in early January. The deadline for lawmakers to approve legislation is midnight on May 31. So why did Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers who favor legalization of recreational marijuana wait until Saturday to announce legislation they want to see enacted?
That doesn't give legislators, or the public, much time to absorb, ponder and debate everything being proposed. It's almost as though those pushing the idea don't want anyone to have too much time to inspect their work, lest its approval be put in doubt.
The bill is 300 pages long, befitting the challenge involved in moving to allow the possession, sale and production of a drug that has been illegal under Illinois and federal law since the 1930s -- and is certain to remain illegal under federal law for the foreseeable future. It contains rules on a host of topics, including limits on possession amounts, licensing of growing operations and dispensaries, expungement of criminal records for past cannabis offenses and tax levels for different products. It calls for helping entrepreneurs of color get into the business.
The summary released last week says the governor will appoint a "Cannabis Regulation Oversight Officer" whose job will be to "make statutory and regulatory recommendations concerning the adult use program."
That's an appropriate government position to create. But based on the description it also sounds like legislative supporters want to approve the general concept now and then leave many details for later, to be figured out by someone else. This is our concern with this process: The bill is in a big hurry. Of course the oversight officer would have more information to draw on once the program is in place. But we'd prefer that lawmakers spend more time gathering the information coming in from the 10 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have already legalized recreational pot.
Some of them made that choice early, notably Washington and Colorado, but their experiments didn't get launched until 2014. Some of them did so recently, notably Michigan, whose voters approved a ballot initiative last year -- but the state won't actually have operating dispensaries until next year.
Opponents contend that legalization has had destructive consequences. One study found that in three states that allowed recreational pot, traffic fatalities temporarily rose, and not only in those states but in neighboring ones. One major Colorado hospital saw a threefold increase in emergency room admissions by people who used cannabis. Revenue from marijuana excise taxes has run far below expectations in California.
None of these developments are grounds to rule out legalization indefinitely. Making cannabis illegal, after all, has failed to prevent a huge market involving traffickers, dealers and users, which has produced a variety of grim consequences.
But the apparent side effects of legalization in other states should give pause to our legislators. Illinois didn't legalize medical marijuana until 2013, and dispensaries didn't open until 2015. It didn't decriminalize personal possession of small amounts until three years ago.
Part of our concern is that elected officials are so attracted to legal pot as a new source of tax revenue that they are already counting the money instead of considering the consequences.
We supported both medical marijuana and decriminalization, and we are open to the possibility that the costs and harms of prohibiting recreational cannabis will prove to be greater than the costs and harms of allowing it. But this is too big and important a matter for lawmakers to jam through during a busy legislative session.
— Chicago Tribune