Marijuana issue sparks debate
When Gov. J.B. Pritzker took office in January, legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana appeared to be imminent.
This week, however, the majority of Illinois House members have co-sponsored a resolution that would delay legalizing recreational marijuana.
Illinois is one of 31 states to have a medical marijuana program. Meanwhile, 10 other states, including Michigan, have legalized recreational use.
“The majority of the states are under legalization,” said state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D–Olympia Fields, who is the co-sponsor of a bill that would legalize recreational use. “This is something that is coming. I don’t think we can stop this train.
“We need regulation. What’s happening right now is the wild, Wild West. There is no regulation. We need that to get a handle on it.”
However, the debate continues. Throughout the past few weeks, the Daily Journal has spoken with area officials, including Hutchinson, who support and oppose legalizing recreational marijuana.
Here is what they had to say:
Hutchinson and state Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst, R–Kankakee, support legalization because it would lighten caseloads at courthouses and prevent marijuana users from facing lifelong ramifications for nonviolent offenses.
“This should not be a matter for the criminal justice system,” Hutchinson said. “It is a matter of public health. I don’t think it should come with felony convictions that follow you the rest of your life.”
Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe, however, said legalization will hinder law enforcement’s ability to get illegal guns and hard drugs off the streets.
“Marijuana is one of the few drugs police can smell, which gives them probable cause to search vehicles, where they often find other drugs and guns,” Rowe said. “Legalizing recreational marijuana could take away that probable cause and inhibit police from getting those drugs and illegal guns off the streets. That is going to be the biggest impact in going after gang bangers and drug dealers.”
With that in mind, Rowe believes the current decriminalization laws are the middle ground that balance public safety and law enforcement.
“Under decriminalization, marijuana is still a basis for probable cause, which gets police to the guns and hardcore drugs,” Rowe said. “But it does not put the person in lurch for possession of marijuana. Decriminalization is the middle ground. There is no risk of you getting a criminal background or being sent to jail for possession of marijuana, but we are not going to go so far as to say it’s legal.”
In contrast, Hutchinson argues that legalization will be more effective in reducing crime than decriminalization.
“There are more benefits to legalization,” she said. “It opens the door for study and regulation. That is more than decriminalization. Decriminalization isn’t going to make your neighborhood drug dealer ask for a legal ID. If we legalize it, we can regulate it.
“My No. 1 thing is to get rid of the illegal market, the thing that sucks the most vulnerable people into their net. The best way to do that is to regulate. Yes, Illinois is in a fiscal mess. The revenue will help. But regulation is going to keep illegal marijuana sales from happening in parks and neighborhoods.”
Psychologist Jim Simone, who has worked more than 40 years in drug rehabilitation, echoed Hutchinson’s argument. He believes recreational marijuana should be under the same laws as alcohol, tobacco and gambling.
“When we talk about legalizing cannabis, we are not opening the doors to everybody,” Simone said. “Toddlers and teenagers aren’t going to walk into a store and get marijuana. It’s just like alcohol, tobacco and gambling. We have controls on those. We have age limits on them. We have licenses and background checks to sell it.
“We have that in place already. You just place those common restrictions and regulations on the cannabis industry, and I don’t see it as an issue.”
In 2017, Kankakee County had a record 56 drug overdose deaths followed by another 29 in 2018.
Of the 29 people who died from overdoses last year, 21 had THC in their system.
That was why Kankakee County Coroner Bob Gessner and Kate Reed, the Iroquois-Kankakee Regional Office of Education’s drug-free communities project coordinator, went to Chicago last month to dissuade lawmakers from legalizing recreational marijuana.
“It’s difficult to understand why they are trying to legalize something right now when we have a huge problem with opioids,” Gessner said. “Marijuana is a gateway drug. Everybody I interview after someone dies from an overdose says they either started with a painkiller or marijuana and moved their way up. They got so much pain relief. Then, they weren’t getting enough and moved on to harder drugs.”
Reed argues that legalizing recreational use will make marijuana more accessible to youth. She cited a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that found 1 in 4 high school seniors would either start using or increase their use of marijuana if it is legalized.
In the past year, Kankakee School District 111 has had two cases in which students have brought marijuana edibles to school. Last October, a Kankakee High School student brought marijuana-laced gummies to school. Last month, a Kankakee Junior High School student brought marijuana-laced cornbread to school.
“This is about commercializing an industry driven by profit that targets people who are vulnerable,” Reed said. “That is our youth. To make a lifelong customer, you start at a young age. It’s Big Tobacco 2.0. We legislate to influence behavior. If we legalize marijuana, we are encouraging it.”
Parkhurst, who said she is open-minded to legalization, countered that marijuana would reduce opioid use and overdose deaths.
“Medical marijuana shows benefits to many ailments including chronic pain, seizures, cancer, glaucoma and PTSD; and states with legalized marijuana show a reduction in opioid prescriptions and (fewer) opioid addictions and deaths,” Parkhurst told the Daily Journal in an emailed statement.
Hutchinson also refuted that marijuana is a gateway drug.
“If you tell anyone that cannabis is the same as heroin, they know it is a lie,” she said. “We need smart policy that deals with [marijuana] in public health, not court.”
“I think cigarettes and alcohol are the gateway drugs,” she added. “They kill you. You can die from alcohol. There are no reported deaths for marijuana. I think our law enforcement would do better to go after substances that kill people.”
While marijuana cannot cause someone to overdose, Gessner and Rowe are concerned that legalization will lead to more impaired driving injuries and deaths.
Rowe said enforcing that could cost Kankakee County more money since blood draws are required to determine how many nanograms of THC are in someone’s system.
“You need a drug recognition expert to detect someone who is driving under the influence of marijuana,” Rowe said. “That is a very specialized training for law enforcement that costs money.”
Pritzker proposed a $39 billion budget in February. He attributed more than $1 billion of that budget to legalizing recreational marijuana and sports betting.
However, a consulting report recently indicated Illinois’ 16 licensed marijuana growers only could supply between 35 and 54 percent of the demanded recreational marijuana crop, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Hutchinson acknowledged that report while advocating for legalization.
“My main concern is not the revenue as much as it undercutting the illegal market,” she said. “The best way to do that is to make sure that tax rates are not so high that they help the illicit market. Yes, there will be taxes that come to Illinois, but we are not ready for the demand yet. [Legalization] will open the door.”
Parkhurst reiterated Hutchinson’s opinion while stating that legalization could provide more economic impacts.
“Legalizing and regulation marijuana will remove one of the nation’s largest cash crops from an illicit underground black market,” Parkhurst said. “It will create jobs, tax revenues and regulate safety standards for the drug. These revenues will be used for the public good.”
On the other hand, Rowe said the costs of police training and potential public health concerns, such as impaired driving, could be more costly.
“My concern about this is that we are seeing legislation being driven by the need for revenue in Illinois as opposed to smart legislation being crafted based upon the experience of other states and medical professionals,” Rowe said.
“We are making medical decisions based upon greed and the need for tax revenue. If money wasn’t the driving force behind legalization, you could accept the middle ground of decriminalization. If this was really about the social issues of incarceration and despair impact, decriminalization solves that. But decriminalization doesn’t come with the tax revenue. Talk about pay to play.”
State representatives recently indicated they share the same opinion as Rowe.
This week, 60 of the Illinois House of Representatives’ 118 members have co-sponsored a resolution to delay legalization in order to consider the impact recreational marijuana could have on Illinois, according to the Chicago Tribune. Lawmakers still need to vote on the resolution.
According to the Illinois General Assembly website, Parkhurst signed on as a co-sponsor for the resolution, which states lawmakers “should not rush irresponsible legislation for tax revenues.”
“Rep. Parkhurst supports legalization, but believes the lawmakers should be careful and thoughtful,” Parkhurst’s Communications Analyst Justin Krolik told the Daily Journal via email. “She is following the marijuana bills and will determine how to vote once they are analyzed and debated and reach a final format.
“Illinois will not be the first state to legalize. Other states have data on how legalization affects state budgets, crime and youth. Illinois must carefully consider the legal framework we are creating so opioid addictions and overdoses drop, our criminal justice system is less burdened and we bring this illicit underground black market into a legal framework that does not return people to the black market.”