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On 4/20, Here's Everything You Need To Know About The Push For Legal Weed In Illinois

By Stephen Gossett in News on Apr 20, 2017 6:03PM

By simple virtue of their introduction, two recent proposals to regulate and tax "limited amounts" of recreational marijuana in the state of Illinois together represent the single most significant steps forward in the long push to legalize weed. Supporters say that the legislation, which was announced late last month, would be a boon to the eternally empty-pocketed state while also making communities safer—and according to polls, residents and representatives are increasingly in their corner. With the debate lighting up and international Weed Day back for another year, here's the lay of the grassy lands in Illinois right now.

Most recently, state lawmakers took part in a hearing about how legalized recreational marijuana has affected Colorado. Seventy-five percent of all marijuana sales are now above board in the Rocky Mountain state, Barbara Brohl, Colorado's Revenue Director, told lawmakers on Wednesday who are considering the proposals, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago). Given that high figure, coupled with a robust 28 percent tax rate, Colorado generated whopping revenue from pot last year: almost $200 million, from $1.3 billion in sales.

The Marijuana Policy Project used Colorado as a gauge for when it projected that Illinois could could bring in between $349 million and $699 per year on taxed, regulated marijuana.

With such potential for revenue, more and more people are signing on to the concept. Across the country, support has never been higher (ahem), with 61 percent of Americans in favor of legal weed, according to CBS News. That's a five-point jump from the last poll. On the local level, support is skyrocketing, too. Two-thirds of Illinois voters, 66 percent, favor legalization, according to a recent study by SIU's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. (Seventy-four percent of Chicago voters are for it.)

"Illinois voters are growing increasingly comfortable with the idea of decriminalizing marijuana, and we now have evidence that most see it as a potential revenue source for the state," Jak Tichenor, interim director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said.

Of course, any measure requires political will to match popular support. On the left, most of the major candidates for the governor's office are pro-legalization, according to recent posts by Capitol Fax's Rich Miller. That camp includes Sen. Daniel Biss, Ald. Ameya Pawar and JB Pritzker. Chris Kennedy "supports decriminalizing marijuana in Illinois." Last year, Gov. Rauner signed a law that decriminalizes possession of 10 grams or less.

But Rauner nonetheless seems at least skeptical of full-stop legalization. “I'm not a believer that legalizing more drugs will help our society so I’m not philosophically enthusiastic about it, but I’m also open to what actually works to make life better to people,” Rauner said in March on WGN-AM 720. He did leave the door open, but given that he seems to be facing pressures from his party's social conservative wings as election season ramps up (see his blundering about-face on the abortion "trigger"), copious grains of salt are recommended. There's also of course the not exactly pro-NORML line coming out of Jeff Sessions' office at the federal level, but that's something all states will have to face. And law enforcement representatives, not surprisingly, were not too thrilled about the prospect.

As for the nitty gritty of the legislation, adults 21 and over could buy and possess limited amounts. Residents could possess 28 grams and grow five plants. The bills call for a tax rate of $50 per ounce, wholesale level, plus the standard Illinois sales tax rate. Smoking in public and driving under the influence would still not be permitted. Marijuana sales in Colorado brought in $40 million for public schools last year; Illinois lawmakers hope their legislation would similarly help fund the strapped Chicago district. Supporters also hope that legalization would discriminatory arrest patterns and make neighborhoods safer overall.

“Marijuana prohibition poses more potential harm to citizens and our community than marijuana itself,” said Rev. Alexander Sharp of Chicago, a spokesman for the coalition and executive director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, in a statement. “It is forcing marijuana into a dangerous underground market where consumers may encounter violence, contaminated products, and other illegal drugs. Ending prohibition and regulating marijuana for adult use would make Illinois safer.”