As state legislators consider whether Illinois should be the next state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, they most likely would need a governor who supports the idea.
The eight candidates running for governor are mostly divided along party lines, with the Democrats generally in favor of the idea and Republicans against legalizing the drug beyond the state’s current medical marijuana program.
In addition to the state’s medical marijuana program, possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana also has been decriminalized in Illinois as people can receive fines of $100 or $200 if caught with 10 grams or less of marijuana, instead of being sent to jail.
Illinois legislators late last year had hearings on the legalization of recreational marijuana and whether the state should join the seven states and District of Columbia that have given the OK for recreational use of the substance.
The debate comes as the Justice Department has lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors around the country to decide what to do when state rules are in conflict with federal drug laws.
Donald Boyce, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, has declined to say what he will do, referring questions back to the Justice Department.
A poll last year by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale found 66 percent of respondents said they supported legalization of recreational marijuana in Illinois if it is taxed and regulated like alcohol.
Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is seeking re-election, is opposed to legalizing marijuana.
“I think marijuana is a large experiment right now. It’s an experiment on the youth of America,” Rauner said. “Colorado is experimenting, California is experimenting, a few other states. What’s prudent is we watch and see how much impact it has. How much does addiction change? How young people’s brains are impacted?”
Jeanne Ives, a Republican state representative from Wheaton who is running against Rauner in the March 20 primary, also is against legalization of marijuana, said Kathleen Murphy, a campaign spokeswoman.
Ives cited a study from Colorado that said marijuana‐related traffic deaths increased 48 percent, and said there was an increase in youth marijuana use.
“This is the wrong way to solve our budget problems,” Murphy said.
Democrats seeking the governor’s office, on the other hand, are generally in favor of the idea.
State Sen. Daniel Biss has been a supporter of marijuana legalization since before running for governor, said Tom Elliott, communications director for the campaign.
Elliott said the Democratic candidate’s view is legalization is part of criminal justice reform as the rate of minorities in prison for marijuana possession is higher than for white people.
“It’s an outdated policy,” Elliott said. “He (Biss) wants to end the war on drugs. Revenue we would get from taxing marijuana should toward drug abuse treatment policies.”
Chris Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, said he believes marijuana should be publicly available, but only as far as scientists and medical professional advise, according to his website.
During a Chicago Sun-Times gubernatorial candidate forum, Kennedy said that recommendations for legalization should come through a process guided by an organization such as the University Illinois.
“Chris further believes that the issue of legalizing marijuana should be separated from the issue of using taxes as a revenue stream to fund state government,” his website says.
Billionaire investor J.B. Pritzker, who said the state can legalize marijuana in a safe way while bringing in increased revenue, also discussed the criminal justice reform aspect that legalization would bring.
“Criminalizing marijuana hasn’t made our communities safer. What it’s done is disproportionately impacted black and brown communities,” Pritzker said in a campaign statement. “The criminalization of cannabis never has been and never will be enforced fairly, and it’s time to bring that to an end.”
Madison County Regional Office of Education Superintendent Bob Daiber, a Democrat and the only downstate candidate seeking the governor’s mansion, said he supports legislation, but it would need support from the state’s voters.
“I have asked for there to be a vote,” Daiber said. “I don’t care if it’s a nonbinding referendum vote. But there needs to be a vote and the people have to pass it.”
Daiber said he would follow the leads of California and Colorado and follow their policies closely in setting up a program for how to sell and tax it.
Daiber said he hasn’t done any revenue projections on legalization.
“I think those revenue projections are always hypothetical. I think there’s some disappointment in the current legalization of medical marijuana in that it’s not bringing in what people thought it would,” Daiber said. “I don’t anticipate high hopes for revenue until we see what that ... would look like.”
Robert Marshall, who is a doctor in the Chicago suburbs, also said he supports legalization of marijuana. It’s a stance he took when he previously ran for Congress in 2016.
Tio Hardiman, a Chicago violence prevention advocate, said money from legalizing marijuana, along with a proposed “LaSalle Street tax” on financial transactions and a progressive income tax, all would bring in needed revenue.
“We also support legalizing small amounts of marijuana which could bring in a few billions of dollars. We could use those funds to help grow the economy here in the state of Illinois,” Hardiman said during the Sun-Times forum.
Rauner said marijuana has changed dramatically over the years.
“It’s not what it used to be 20, 30, 40 years ago. It’s a very potent, very dangerous drug. I think we should watch, take our time, and not rush into changes that could impact the quality of life for many Illinoisans,” the governor said.