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Is legal weed in Illinois a pipe dream?

Nationwide polls show growing support for legal recreational use, but even advocates say Illinois isn't ready for that conversation.

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CLAY HICKSON
  • Clay Hickson

Chris Lindsey has paid a heavy price for his role in the fight to reform marijuana laws.

He's a convicted felon. He served five years probation. And his career as a criminal defense attorney was halted temporarily. But that hasn't kept the 48-year-old away from what he calls the "noble work" of advocating for full legalization.

Lindsey's story starts in 2007, when he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease—a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the digestive tract. He found great relief in medical marijuana; when he didn't consume it, the debilitating abdominal pain caused by swelling in his gut would send him to the hospital. Luckily Lindsey lived in Montana, a state that legalized medical use in 2004. But as he became more familiar with the law's limitations and the beneficial effects of pot on patients like him, Lindsey thought existing dispensaries were doing a poor job of supplying customers. So in 2009, he and several partners established Montana Cannabis, a company that would become one of the largest medical marijuana growers and sellers in the state.

It would also be one of dozens of marijuana-related businesses across Montana raided by federal authorities in March 2011. Lindsey had left the company about a year and a half prior, but that didn't protect him.

"Because I had not taken any steps to try to end that 'illegal' activity, I was charged as a coconspirator," he says today. "Truly, I really had grown marijuana and provided it to people, so there wasn't exactly much of an argument there. And in the wake of that, I became a felon."

The story of Montana Cannabis made national headlines (in part because one employee was involved in the highly publicized 1984 abduction of biathlete Keri Swenson). Based on the minimum sentences for the five felonies he was initially charged with, Lindsey faced up to 85 years in prison. A plea deal saved him time, but the damage was done; his license to practice law was suspended, he was prohibited from using marijuana despite its beneficial effects on his condition, and the story of his days as a "drug dealer" was everywhere.

"As I started to look at the situation—not only related to medical marijuana but with respect to how marijuana is treated in our society and how we treat people who consume it for any reason—it became clear that things really needed to change," he says.

Lindsey eventually found a new place in the movement as a senior legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that has invested heavily in pro-marijuana legislation across the country. And today's battleground extends beyond Montana, where Lindsey is still based, into other states where advocates are trying to gain momentum—including Illinois.

Four states—Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska—and Washington, D.C., have already legalized recreational marijuana. Together, they have registered more than 325,000 medical marijuana patients, more than a quarter of the nation's total. The move has been extremely lucrative. In Colorado alone, the total revenue from marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees reached more than $102 million in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue; this fiscal year is on track to surpass that total, with nearly $98 million brought in during the first eight months.

Lindsey is certain that more states will follow. So what about Illinois, with its massive debt crisis and millions already invested in its Medical Cannabis Pilot Program? What's to stop the Prairie State from joining the ranks of pot pioneers on the west coast?

A lot, as it turns out. Persisting concerns from the medical establishment, voter apathy, complicated economic questions, and the still-real threat of the federal government's marijuana prohibition all stand in the way, making even staunch advocates like Lindsey pessimistic about weed's immediate future in Illinois. Given all the apparent hurdles, legalized recreational use can seem like little more than a pipe dream.

Joint consideration

The chance for recreational weed in Illinois starts with the success or failure of the state's medical pilot program. And right now, supporters say that program is in trouble, starting with the current low rates of participation. Illinois currently recognizes 39 qualifying conditions for medical use, but attempts to add to that list have been thwarted, denying access to thousands more potential patients. In addition, doctors have been shy to prescribe medical weed. So far, only around 5,000 patients have become medical marijuana cardholders. (See "In Illinois, a cancer diagnosis isn't a 'green-card' guarantee.")

This number worries Lindsey.

"If you treat marijuana like plutonium, you're creating this artificially high standard," he says. "We just don't see the regulatory bar as high in most states as Illinois, and does that really make the Illinois system better? I'm not sure that it does."

Bob Morgan, the pilot program's former coordinator, now president of the Illinois Cannabis Bar Association and special counsel to the marijuana industry with the Chicago law firm Much Shelist, says the system was designed to be restrictive "because that's what it took to pass in the legislature."

“If you treat marijuana like plutonium, you're creating this artificially high standard”

—Chris Lindsey, lawyer and marijuana legalization advocate­

But even legislators involved in the effort are unsatisfied with current participation rates. Illinois state rep Kelly Cassidy was a chief cosponsor on the bill that created the pilot program; it was one of the first bills that got her attention when she took office in 2011.

Still, she rattles off a series of complaints about how it's going. In addition to the failure to expand the program and the rejection of additional qualifying conditions there was the delay in implementation—nearly two years between when the law was passed and when it took effect. She worries about the patients who have begun treatment, as well as the industry leaders who've invested millions in a market that is perhaps less stable than they would have hoped.

"We're on a when, not if, trajectory as a country and a state," Cassidy says about legal recreational weed. But for now, she'd rather concentrate on stabilizing the current medical pilot program, then on decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana for nonviolent offenders, before she moves on to recreational use. "Right now, I'm just trying to keep people from going to jail," she says.

Dina Rollman agrees that conversations about recreational weed are premature in Illinois. A partner with Chicago law firm Rollman & Dahlin and a founding member of the Illinois Cannabis Bar Association, Rollman has taken a keen interest in the medical marijuana industry. Still, she agrees that legalized recreational use isn't realistic anytime soon.

"It's too early to have that discussion," she says. "We're in the process of demonstrating that the industry can operate medical marijuana responsibly and overcome a lot of people's fears . . . That's proving to be a big job, and the industry is right to focus on that right now in order to make medical marijuana a success before the conversation moves to anything else."

The time to prove the medical program's worth is dwindling, though; it will expire on January 1, 2018.

High hopes

Even consumers who want to smoke weed legally may not be willing to say so publicly. Last year, a Gallup poll revealed that 58 percent of Americans favor legalized marijuana, continuing a trend of growing support since Gallup first posed the question in 1969; that year, only 12 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be legal. People between the ages of 18 and 34 have historically shown greater support than other groups, and in 2015, 71 percent of people in that age bracket favored legalization—hardly a surprise.

Unfortunately, those same young people can't be counted on to voice their support where it matters most: the voting booth.

The demographic that most commonly expresses enthusiasm for legalization has been white males under 40, according to Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of NORML, the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws. The problem, Linn says, is those men "just don't vote, or just don't engage in the political process as much as they should to represent their interests."

According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau published in July, only 23 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 reported voting, and less than half of male voters of all ages—just 40.8 percent—were active.

"That's the real sleeping giant that we need to awaken," Linn says, because "even if we have legalization in the next five years, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be friendly toward cannabis users."

For example, under the current pilot program it's not legal for cardholders to grow their own weed. (See "Why can't Illinois patients grow their own weed?") Linn says home cultivation is "precious" to consumers in Illinois, but that doesn't mean it will be included in a revamped pilot program or a legalization bill, especially if voters don't speak up.

"Given the track record of cannabis consumers in Illinois—as well as underground, illegal cannabis growers," he says, "I don't anticipate them showing up anytime soon to make their demands."

Unlike the states to have legalized pot through voter-driven ballot initiatives, Illinois doesn't have that option. But supporters can exercise their power by calling state legislators and expressing their opinions, Linn says. He believes that if consumers would answer NORML's rallying cry, Illinois could see legalized recreational use as soon as 2018.

Yet supporters, including white males in the age group Linn previously mentioned, don't seem interested. They're jaded, he says, or they fear their own political representatives will brand them "potheads" and sic the Drug Enforcement Administration on them for merely expressing their opinions—a concern Linn has heard on numerous occasions and sees as strange.

"We don't live in Nazi Germany, where the Gestapo is going to come at night because of your political views," he says. "We live in America. You're allowed to voice your political views without repercussions, and I think that's where cannabis consumers and supporters of legalization need to get with the program and start making their voices heard."

But Morgan believes Linn's two-year estimate is ambitious whether or not supporters rally. "I just don't think that's reflective of our political situation in the state legislature," he says. "There are those in the community right now who would like to see a recreational program in Illinois, but when it comes to the legislature, that discussion is many years off."

Cassidy agrees. "People evolve much more quickly than politicians do," she says.

In that case, Linn has another solution: Get the medical industry behind the recreational effort.

Morgan has a polite rebuttal for that suggestion too: "I just don't think that necessarily reflects what the medical cannabis industry is looking for right now."

CLAY HICKSON
  • Clay Hickson

Pot of gold

Even if politicians did somehow evolve past their current stances, there are information gaps to overcome. Legalization advocates often point to economic gains from recreational marijuana sales in other states, arguing that prohibition is funneling money away from the state and into the hands of criminals. But the states that have gone legal so far have taken a trial-and-error approach to taxation. For example, Washington State taxed marijuana sales at a rate as high as 50 percent last year. To compete with nearby Oregon, which taxed at a lower rate, and keep customers out of the black market, Washington's rate was eventually lowered to 37 percent, with new regulations that took effect on August 1. But that still leaves consumers with the highest marijuana tax rates in the nation.

And this back-and-forth has made the potential profitability of legal weed in Illinois hard to predict.

Total medical sales revenue in Illinois totaled $4.4 million between November and February, according to the state. That's a step in the right direction, but it falls short of the results seen in other states—Colorado brought in almost that amount in medical tax revenue alone during the same period.

Lindsey, ever the optimist, argues Illinois can benefit from the successes and failures of other states; by the time Illinois is prepared to legalize, he says, legislators will have far more information than states like Colorado did at the beginning.

"As more states adopt these laws, we'll have more models to draw from," Lindsey says.

And regardless of the taxation model and its benefits for the state, Linn argues that legalization would make the whole industry more profitable by expanding its user base.

"If these investors for the medical program wanted to make a return on their investment as quickly as possible, they should've embraced legalization for all adults," he says.

Morgan says Illinois investors don't see it that way. Rather, they equate recreational use with more competition—more potential customers means more businesses looking to get in on the action.

"If you're looking for recreational, you can go out west," Morgan says. "These businesses sought out the medical marijuana program in Illinois, and business licenses in Illinois, and they knew what they were getting themselves into."

It seems investors would rather stay with the system they know than take risks on the one that they don't.

Buzz kills

"When do things change?" Lindsey wonders.

It's been five years since the feds took action against his former business, but the experience has stayed with him. And just as they did in Montana, authorities could still act against any state with a program they contend violates the federal ban on marijuana. Despite reforms, cannabis is still classified as a schedule I controlled substance, which means the DEA recognizes "no currently accepted medical use" and includes it among "the most dangerous drugs."

Lindsey says he was portrayed as a kingpin in the world of drug dealers after his former business was raided, but to this day he maintains he never made any serious money. After the charges were handed down, his lawyer gave him some advice: "This is your big chance to finally get away from this stuff. You can go make a bunch of money in probate law and rebuild your career."

Lindsey thinks that's exactly what the authorities would've liked to see him do. If you're of Lindsey's mind-set, however, this isn't the time to stay silent and hide from the feds; it's time to start what will surely be a long conversation.

"Our society is struggling right now with how to make this transition," he says, "but it's happening."

How soon it happens in Illinois, though, is anyone's guess.  v


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