End Prohibition, Regulate Marijuana, Make Illinois Safer

//End Prohibition, Regulate Marijuana, Make Illinois Safer

End Prohibition, Regulate Marijuana, Make Illinois Safer
by Bret Bender, Illinois Political Director, Marijuana Policy Project, @MarijuanaPolicy, bbender@mpp.org 

Several Illinois Democratic gubernatorial candidates and Democratic candidates across the county are openly running on a platform that includes the legalization and regulation of cannabis for adults.  One such candidate, Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey, has already taken office.

It’s a brave new world for elected officials.  Four years ago, support for legalization could hardly be whispered by a mainstream, major party candidate for office, but the public’s attitude has certainly evolved.  Gallup found record support for a taxed and regulated cannabis market in October 2017, with 64% of Americans in favor, including 51% of Republicans – the first time a majority of Republicans has supported legalization.  Pew also found its highest level of support in 2017 at 61%, up from 57% a year ago and twice what it was in 2000.  Here in Illinois, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found 66% of Illinoisans support or strongly support a regulated system here, up from 51% support in 2016.

Illinois has been on the policy reform path for some time now. The state’s medical cannabis pilot program has been in operation since 2015. However, as a highly regulated program that requires patients to submit to background checks, has one of the shortest approved conditions lists in the country and one of the few not to include a pain condition, and as becoming a patient can jeopardize ones ability to renew a FOID Card or purchase new firearms, the program excludes many would-be patients. Only about 25,000 patients have entered the program, or less than 2% of the 750,000 Illinoisans who consume marijuana each month.

In 2016, lawmakers decriminalized possession of a small amount of cannabis. It was a step in the right direction because it prevented individuals from being saddled with harmful criminal records. But it fell short of a comprehensive solution for two reasons. First, it left the ongoing cultivating, transporting, and selling of cannabis in the hands of criminals. And secondly, even though we aren’t arresting and jailing people at previous rates, minorities are still receiving a disproportionate amount of the tickets.

Decades of prohibition have not impeded the demand for or access to cannabis and numerous studies point out it is much less harmful than alcohol.  For example, emergency room visits related to alcohol outpace marijuana-related visits 10-to-1 in

Colorado. The millions of people spend each year on marijuana goes into the pockets of criminals and their cartels whose products aren’t tested for safety and who don’t pay taxes. Dealers also often sell far more dangerous drugs such as illicitly obtained pharmaceuticals, opiates, and other drugs; and they don’t card their customers for age. Prohibition hasn’t worked and it isn’t about to start.

Despite 30 states having medical cannabis programs, eight with regulated programs that allow anyone over 21 to purchase marijuana legally, and a few more states that appear close to adopting similar regulated programs, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently rescinded a Department of Justice memo from 2013, known as the Cole Memo, that instructed federal prosecutors to make prosecuting legally operating medical cannabis businesses their lowest priority in enforcing federal law as long as those businesses were following some guidelines such as denying access to children and not distributing across state lines.  It was a surprise move as President Trump said multiple times during the campaign that marijuana was a states’ rights issue that the federal government should stay out of.  Even after Sessions’ decision, it is still local prosecutors who have the discretion of whether to prosecute state legal cannabis businesses.  As long as a cannabis industry remains highly regulated, there is little reason to expect prosecutors would go after an industry that employs more than 20,000 people in each of Washington and Colorado and is expected to generate $5 to $7 billion of economic activity a year in California.

In spite of Sessions’ decision, Chicago Democrats State Rep. Kelly Cassidy and State Sen. Heather Steans, along with their Republican co-sponsors, plan to continue a push to bring a tax and regulated cannabis market to Illinois. Currently, Illinois has one of the most highly regulated medical cannabis programs in the country — one that even gives law enforcement 24-hour access to cameras inside cannabis facilities – and that’s not likely to change in a new non-medical industry.  As such, federal prosecutors should have no reason to doubt the integrity of the industry here.  Furthermore, revenue generated from the sale of cannabis will go to schools, addiction recovery services, and anti-cannabis youth education programs.

To ensure this change is done right, over the past year Steans and Cassidy have held four legislative hearings on the topic with more to come, and they’ve met with interested parties – supporters and opponents alike – from around the state and country.  We expect a new bill will be filed early in the 2018 legislative session, taking into consideration the lessons Illinois has already learned from its medical cannabis program, testimony from national experts, and the many lessons from the other legalization states that have gone before Illinois.

Lessons we are hearing from other states include the need to start gathering detailed health and law enforcement data before the program starts so we can track progress over time. That was the conclusion of researchers from the Colorado Department of Public Health, who recently published a report entitled Lessons learned after three years of legalized, recreational marijuana: the Colorado experience.

While the study noted that teen usage rates have not increased since legalization (despite dire claims by opponents), researchers suggested that more comprehensive data would have been helpful. Illinois lawmakers are taking these lessons to heart, and we expect to see provisions addressing these and other areas in next year’s legislation.

If you would like to learn more about the 2018 legislation or what is going on in legalization programs in other parts of the country, I am eager to come visit local meetings (bbender@mpp.org).  As the Illinois political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, I am in a good position to talk with you about the current efforts underway. I also helped draft the state’s medical law and worked in a cultivation center and dispensary in Illinois prior to my current position with MPP, so I’m able to answer any questions you may have.