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Whomever Illinois elects as governor in November 2018 may be in a position to make or break proposed legislation to legalize possession of limited amounts of pot and sow the seeds for a recreational marijuana industry in the state.
The gubernatorial election is still a year and a half away, but the sponsors of legislation filed earlier this year to legalize marijuana in Illinois say they plan to wait until the beginning of next year—at the very earliest—to push for a vote. That means a bill legalizing pot could arrive on the desk of the state's next governor in January 2019.
Bills introduced in March by state senator Heather Steans and state rep Kelly Cassidy in the state's senate and house, respectively, call for legalizing possession of up to 28 grams of pot and for the creation of a system to license, tax, and regulate businesses that grow and sell the drug.
Legal weed is probably going to be a hard sell in the state's legislature. But the potential economic boost of a marijuana industry—both in terms of tax revenue and new jobs—are driving lawmakers to seriously consider the idea. The Marijuana Policy Project estimates that legal weed could generate between $350 and $700 million in annual tax revenue in Illinois. Given the state's ongoing budget stalemate and massively underfunded pension obligations, new revenue is sorely needed.
But money is just one of several potential benefits of legal pot. As the Reader reported in April, Chicago cops arrested thousands of people last year for possession of small amounts of weed, and nearly 80 percent of those apprehended were black. Legalizing possession and use of the drug could significantly mitigate stark racial disparity and inequity in the state's criminal justice system.
Additionally, Illinois, like many states across the country, is suffering from a heroin epidemic, and studies have shown marijuana can reduce reliance on opioids. Research also indicates a correlation between access to legal weed and a reduction in opioid overdose deaths.
Given the potential influence and power the state's next governor could wield over the fate of legal weed in Illinois, the Reader asked gubernatorial candidates where they stand on marijuana legalization. We've included their responses, edited lightly for clarity, below.
Incumbent Republican governor
Favors legalization? Likely no
Rauner's office didn't return multiple requests for comment on this story. But he hasn't been completely silent on the issue. The day after bills were filed to legalize marijuana, Rauner told the Roe Conn Show on WGN-AM 720 that he's not enthusiastic about the prospect.
"I'm hearing some pretty bad stories. Now, I haven't studied it. I think we should do a thoughtful analysis of what's happening in these other states. I'm hearing a lot of trouble," Rauner told the radio show. "My friends in Colorado have told me some pretty terrible things about addiction problems and behavior problems, etc, over there in Denver."
(A report published in January by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment actually found that rates of marijuana use among adults and teens hadn't changed since the state legalized weed.)
Rauner adds: "I just believe we're conducting a massive human experiment as we legalize these drugs."
Democrat, 47th Ward alderman
Favors legalization? Yes
Marijuana legalization "is a solution to a social justice, criminal justice issue that happens to also generate revenue. It also happens to be one of those things where, why are we still talking about this? There has to be a change in state law. . . . I think we're at a point where we need to do the right thing, and the good thing is that public opinion is starting to line up with the right thing to do. So there's an opportunity here we should be taking advantage of. We should just do it."
Democrat, cofounder and managing partner of private investment and venture capital firm the Pritzker Group
Favors legalization? Yes
"J.B. favors legalization in Illinois and wants it to be done in a way that ensures common sense regulation and a plan to maximize revenue to the state," reads a statement from Pritzker's campaign staff. "J.B. believes that we should look at best practices from other states and make sure we implement legalization in a responsible way."
Democrat and state senator
Favors legalization? Yes
"I'm a cosponsor of [the senate] bill [to legalize marijuana]. There's a basic question of justice given the inequity of the application of drug laws, and particularly marijuana laws, that I think has been vicious and harmful—particularly to communities of color. It's a basic question of whether the right way to deal with this particular addiction is through the criminal law or through appropriate regulation and taxation, and, when appropriate, [substance abuse] treatment. I do think there are situations where marijuana is abused in a way that is unsafe for people. And then there's the pragmatic question: Do we want to be spending money on the criminal justice system, or raising government funds through taxation of a legalized product?"
Biss says his reasons for supporting legal weed are "number one: social and racial justice, and number two: common sense regarding treatment [of substance abuse], and number three: revenue for the state. . . . If it were the wrong thing to do, I wouldn't do it just for the money."
Democrat and regional superintendent of schools for Madison County Favors legalization? Yes
"As far as recreational use of marijuana [is concerned], I believe I've said I would sign a bill into law for recreational marijuana, but I'd like for there to be a nonbinding referendum, an advisory referendum, rather than to just go through the General Assembly. . . . I'd rather see the general public have a voice rather than it just be a legislative decision. If that advisory referendum told me, as governor, that the public wanted legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Illinois, I'd be glad to sign it into law. However, I've been an advocate for drug-free workplaces and schools my entire time in education, and we will have to keep those policies in place for safe work environments. We're also going to really have to look at this as how far as how we would do background checks for public-sector employees where drug use is not permissible. There are related issues [with marijuana legalization]."
Democrat and chairman of the Kennedy family's investment firm Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises, Inc.
Favors legalization? Unclear
Kennedy didn't respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. However, Capitol Fax reported earlier this month that the candidate was asked at a convention of Illinois College Democrats in late April how he'd use tax revenue from marijuana sales if the drug was legalized. Here's Kennedy's response:
"I think you have high hopes. I don't know whether it'll get legalized, I don't know if it'll get taxed. I mean, I think betting our future that all of that occurs and that somehow that's gonna cure our budget problem. I think we need thoughtful, real, concrete solutions that operate without relying on something that has, you know, tenuous possibilities."