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State Legislation Hints At Marijuana Legalization


Last year, Illinois approved medical use of marijuana after years of debating the issue.   But could Illinois be closer to following the lead of some other states that have given the o-k to recreational use?   

    Twenty states including Illinois allow cannabis to be used with a doctor's approval.  About 40 medical conditions can qualify a person.  Illinois' law is considered one of the strictest in the country.  
    However, at it's core, it can also send a message that marijuana might not be so bad after all.   Marijuana being part of health care contrasts with the decades old war on drugs. 
    Representative Robyn Gabel, an Evanston Democrat, is among those pushing for more details on the effects of legalizing cannabis.  

    "We'd have to see the results of the study.  I think that if the issue came up it would at least give us information that we could then base our judgment on," Gabel said.

    A new Pew Research Center poll shows the majority of Americans favor allowing recreational use of marijuana.  Three out of four say it's inevitable.  
    But the director of a state marijuana advocacy group, known as Illinois NORML,  says he doesn't think Illinois will be in a hurry to make the change.    Dan Linn says it took a long enough time to get medicinal marijuana passed and that legislators might be tired of the issue.

    "They're happy to let sick people get access to this plant, and I think that they are gonna let, at least, a few years to by of seeing how this medical program works before they want to explore other options," Linn said.

    Linn and his cohorts, at the state capitol one morning--stood behind a table of pamphlets--dressed in suits and ties.  They looked  like a typical lobbyist rather than marijuana activists. He says they're in Springfield to educate lawmakers.  Their end goal is legalization.
    Law enforcement takes a different view.  Greg Sullivan, director of Illinois Sheriff's Association is skeptical.  

    "I don't think you're going to convince too many law enforcement officers that it's a good idea.  Now there are some that say 'Decriminalize it.  Go ahead.  We don't need to be putting people in prison for marijuana.' And I think the country is going to that trend," Sullivan said.

    Sullivan says several cities in the state consider marijuana possession, in small amounts, a low level offense.
    Jacksonville, a city west of the state Capital, is considering lessening penalties of possession for first time offenders.
    Still, millions of dollars are spent fighting use of the drug.   That includes those who wind up in prison.  The state pays a lot to house inmates who are usually non violent.  
    Legislation under debate at the statehouse would drastically reduce penalties.  Saving money is considered a key part of the argument in favor.  

House Bill 5708

House Bill 4299

House Bill 4091

    But that's not far enough, some say.  They say it doesn't get marijuana out of the underground market.

    "There's no good reason why we should be leaving this product in the hands of cartels and criminals instead of having it sold by legitimate tax paying businesses," Tvert said.

    That's Mason Tvert, Director of Communications for Marijuana Policy Project.
    He says there's a need for medicinal marijuana. That's why it gets passed first.  it happened that way in Colorado.  As more states like Illinois o-k it for medical use,  Tvert says recreational use will inevitably happen in more places.

    "People in any given state will recognize that marijuana is not as harmful as they were once led to believe, in fact it's less harmful than alcohol and they'll decide to start treating it that way.  For some states that might be in the next couple of years, and for others that might be in the next decade.  But ultimately we are going to see marijuana treated very similarly to alcohol around the country," Tvert said.

    Tvert says Alaska has a ballot initiative this year to regulate cannabis like alcohol.  He says Rhode Island, a state with high unemployment and debt, is considered legalizing it and taxing it. 
    Illinois could certainly use more revenue.  The state has a nearly $5 billion deficit and is struggling to pay for roads, schools and other services.  But state lawmakers don't seem ready to take the leap and make recreational use of marijuana part of the solution.
    At least, not yet.   

Lee Strubinger completed the University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting graduate program and is currently in Colorado.
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