Illinois politicians now talking openly about legalizing pot | Bleader

Illinois politicians now talking openly about legalizing pot

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State representative Kelly Cassidy says legalizing marijuana is right for Illinois.
  • Sun-Times Media
  • State representative Kelly Cassidy says legalizing marijuana is "right" for Illinois.
Marijuana legalization just entered the political mainstream in Illinois.

Three state legislators and a Cook County commissioner stood before cameras and reporters at the county building Monday afternoon and announced their support for mapping a path to legal pot sales for recreational use.

"I believe the goal of full legalization is the right one for our state," said Representative Kelly Cassidy.

Cassidy was joined by her house colleagues Christian Mitchell and Michael Zalewski, who have all sponsored legislation in Springfield to ease the penalties for marijuana possession. But, Cassidy said, "I think what we're working on, realignment, is just a step toward taxing and regulating."

County commissioner John Fritchey, who organized the press conference, said they all realized that it could be several years before the state allows recreational sales and use. "If we were to introduce a legalization bill today, it would be shot down," he said. "This is not going to happen in weeks or month, but it's not something that's ever going to happen if we don't start now."

They called on state officials to take the first concrete step by creating a task force to study what's happened so far in Colorado and Washington. Fritchey also said he would introduce a resolution on the task force at the next county board meeting.

Voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives allowing legal pot sales. Illinois doesn't have a similar referendum process, so any movement would be up to lawmakers—a group that even the lawmakers in the room acknowledged could be slow to act.

It took years for the Illinois General Assembly to approve a pilot marijuana program for seriously ill patients, and even then it's considered one of the most restrictive in the country.

Yet surveys have found that most Americans are now open to legalization, including a Gallup poll last October that found 58 percent in support.

"Public opinion moves much more quickly than legislators," said Cassidy. But she predicted that politicians would grow more comfortable as they followed the programs underway in the western states. "And as medical marijuana moves forward [in Illinois], the sky won't fall there either."

The elected officials offered an array of reasons for their support. Fritchey cited the Reader's reporting that police in Chicago are making dozens of pot possession arrests a day, which takes police off patrol, clogs the courts, and costs local taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.

Zalewski stressed his concerns that the state's jails and prisons are holding thousands of people for low-level drug offenses while some gun offenders and violent criminals are out on the street. Mitchell noted that young people—particularly African-Americans—can pick up criminal records for marijuana possession that end up hurting their job and school prospects.

"This is an idea whose time has come," Mitchell said.

But the officials were unwilling to commit to one thing: the possibility that they might light up themselves if they could acquire pot legally.

Fritchey said that's the kind of "gotcha" question that's frightened politicians into keeping current policies in place for decades, though marijuana has been found to be less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes. It's time for new thinking, he said.

"The truth is that we could do it here and be a criminal, or we could go to Colorado and be on our merry way," he said.

Legalization is going to happen, Fritchey added, so "Let's do this the right way."

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