State should legalize marijuana but use tax money wisely

By Editorial Board

Illinois State Sen. Heather Steans and Illinois State Rep. Kelly Cassidy are likely to be popular with Illinoisans who favor legalization of recreational marijuana. That’s 74.4 percent of the state, according to a March 28 poll conducted by the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

Cassidy and Steans introduced legislation March 22 in the General Assembly and Senate to legalize and tax recreational marijuana for adults over 21. The bills, Senate Bill 316 and House Bill 2353, would legalize possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana and, similar to alcohol laws, allow facilities to sell products to adults over 21.

Purchasers would be required to show proof of age, and sales to anyone under 21 and driving under the influence would remain illegal. Any marijuana sold in the state would be subject to testing, labeling and regulation as a consumer protection measure, according to a March 22 ABC 7 Chicago report.

The drug’s sales would be taxed similarly to alcohol. According to a March 22 Chicago Reader article, wholesale transactions of marijuana would be taxed at a rate of $50 per ounce, and retail sales would be subject to the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.

As of press time, alcohol tax in the state is 23.1 cents per gallon of beer; $1.39 per gallon of wine; and $8.55 per gallon of hard liquor. Chicago imposes its own taxes, which are tied to percentage of alcohol, excluding beer.

The tax revenue could help the city in many ways. In 2015, the legal marijuana industry in Colorado helped create more than 18,000 new full-time jobs and generated a total of $2.4 billion in economic activity, according to an Oct. 31, 2016, Chicago Tribune article. Both Colorado and Washington have seen marijuana taxation produce tens of millions of dollars a year invested in education and public health—exactly what Chicago needs.

This seems like the perfect solution to the unending fight over the state budget. Legalizing marijuana could be the state’s road to recovery, offering new avenues for a state with a tumultuous economic history.

The Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization working on pot policy reform, projects that sales of legal weed in Illinois could produce between $350 million and $700 million in tax revenue annually. With this kind of money, Illinois—especially Chicago—could start to pay off the state’s heavy deficit. Tax money and increased economic activity could go a long way toward helping Chicago Public Schools, state community colleges, mental health institutions and homeless shelters.

Though the money has the utmost potential to fill in budget gaps, attract more tourism and unclog the court system, police need to be trained for proper protocol when weed becomes legal. While Colorado’s arrests for marijuana dropped by 95 percent in 2015, a Colorado Health Department survey found the marijuana arrest rate for white 10–17-year-olds fell nearly 10 percent from 2012 to 2014, while arrests for black adolescents rose by 20 percent and 50 percent for Latino adolescents. In light of the Chicago police’s history of racial profiling, safeguards against targeting minorities must be created before legalization is approved. 

The CPD and state governments need to consider issues that could arise after legalization and work to ensure that marijuana will benefit the city, given that it will be a big part of the future.