Budding support for legal weed among state reps

By Metro Editor

Despite the controversy surrounding Illinois’ legalization of medical marijuana last year, some legislators are now calling for making recreational weed legal as well.

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey said during an April 28 press conference that he would introduce an ordinance at the May 21 Cook County Board meeting urging the state to create a task force that would research and draft legislation to legalize recreational marijuana possession. Reps. Kelly Cassidy (D–Chicago), Michael Zalewski (D–Riverside) and Christian Mitchell (D–Chicago) testified that legalizing recreational marijuana would reduce drug-related crime and help the state’s strained bud- get. However, some still oppose the controversial measure.

“What we know about marijuana [is it’s] a highly potent complex drug,” said Carla Lowe, founder of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana. “This drug is diminishing [adolescents’] potential and diminishing the potential for America.”

Cook County’s tight budget and Illinois’ more than $6 billion deficit makes recreational marijuana appealing because of the potential tax revenue, Fritchey said, citing the positive economic impact recreational marijuana has had in Colorado and Washington, both of which legalized the drug in 2012. In March, Colorado generated $2 million in marijuana taxes and anticipates $67 million by the end of 2014, according to the state’s website.

Fritchey said the task force would examine the financial gains in Colorado and Washington, speak with the states’ legislators and possible impact of legalizing marijuana in Illinois. He said he predicts the task force’s research will last for one year and drafting and voting on legislation will take an additional year.

“The sky hasn’t fallen [in Colorado and Washington], that’s lesson No. 1,” Fritchey said. “The fact that legislators there found that it was politically safe and accessible to constituents, that’s lesson No. 2.”

According to a study published April 16 by Northwestern University, adults ages 18–25 who smoked recreationally had significant brain abnormalities. However, the study examined only 20 marijuana smokers in the Boston area. The study showed that the regions of the brain responsible for motivation and emotion were abnormally large among regular marijuana smokers and were even larger in those who smoked more frequently.

“There was just a study that shows [marijuana] does affect the brain—that’s problematic,” said Sen. Tim Bivins (R-Dixon). “It’s somewhat ironic and hypocritical that a lot of people that vote on taxes for cigarettes are in favor of recreational marijuana but they are opposed to smoking in general.”

Despite health concerns, Fritchey said the economic benefits make legalization worthwhile. Marijuana criminalization drains state and county budgets because police and the courts pour money into enforcing minor offenses, he said, adding that fewer than 5 percent of drug arrests in Cook County result in jail time. Most minor offenses are dismissed so there is little return on all the time and money poured into enforcing state and city marijuana laws.

Mitchell said blacks and Latinos are disproportionately arrested for and convicted of marijuana possession compared to whites. Mitchell, who represents the South Side, said although Chicago reduced the penalty for possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana in 2012, blacks and Latinos are often still arrested for possession.

A June 3, 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report found that local governments across the nation more strictly enforce marijuana laws against black offenders. In 2010, the arrest rate for possession among blacks nationwide was 716 per 100,000 people, compared to 192 per 100,000 for whites—making blacks 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to the ACLU report.

Having a criminal record limits opportunities and further disadvantages residents of low-income neighborhoods that already experience high unemployment rates, Mitchell said. If the state passes marijuana legislation that sets a statewide standard for enforcement, issues of racially motivated arrests could be mitigated while also giving police more time to focus on violent crimes, he said.

“We are dealing with a rash of crime as it starts to get warmer,” Mitchell said. “I want to make sure that the officers can be out chasing down the violent criminals in our city, not some kid who made a mistake. We live in a time of economic scarcity and we need to make sure that our public safety dollars are going to the violent crimes that are terrorizing our communities.”

Despite representatives’ claims that recreational marijuana would have positive economic and social impacts, Sen. Jason Barickman (R–Bloomington) said any state’s effort to completely decriminalize marijuana is in vain because it remains federally illegal.

“While I see the various states making attempts to legalize it, one still cannot get around the fact that this is a drug that has been made illegal by the federal government,” Barickman said. “While this president has said he may take a more lax approach to enforcing certain federal laws in regards to drug use, this president will not be in office forever and I don’t think the public wants to rely on the whim of the person that occupies the office of the president.”

However, Fritchey said marijuana legalization is gaining more public support, alluding to an Oct. 22, 2013 Gallup poll that found 58 percent of Americans support recreational marijuana legalization. Fritchey said legalizing marijuana is not a matter of if it will be legalized but when.

“I’ve often said people evolve more quickly than legislators do and we are in the middle of that evolution,” Cassidy said. “I believe [creating the task force] is a wonderful step in getting that information to move us forward to a more sane, workable policy for our state.”