With the passage Thursday of a House bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Illinois lawmakers are inching down a path that a handful of other states have taken—one that may end in legalizing recreational use of cannabis.
House members voted 62-53 in favor of House Bill 218, which waters down the penalty for those caught with half an ounce of pot or less to a municipal fine. The move comes three days after Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced she would dismiss all misdemeanor possession of cannabis charges currently clogging her court system.
But educator and Colorado native Jo McGuire, who spoke during the Metro-east Meth & Other Drug Conference at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows on Thursday, warned in a presentation that legalizing recreational use of pot could cause more problems than supporters claim it solves.
The law on the books in Colorado, she said, is too relaxed because it doesn’t prohibit the most potent marijuana strains, it allows users to create potentially dangerous substances derived from cannabis, it makes the black market even bigger rather than eliminating it and it doesn’t do enough to stop businesses from advertising marijuana products to children.
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“I really think that it could have been done more responsibly, it could have been done in a tighter framework, it could have been done on a limited scale, it could have been rolled out (over time). But we went for the whole tomato,” McGuire said.
She blamed the way Colorado’s legalization came about—a constitutional amendment written by pro-pot activists and approved by young, motivated voters—for the problems with the law. She added that citizens got snowed when those proponents promised the state would be rolling in cash to be used for public school capital projects and other fiscal boons.
“We really are just floundering around. I believe there are better alternatives to full legalization,” she said. “I think the (federal government) could have taken steps to look at prosecution rates and what decriminalization might look like. Then maybe we wouldn’t have had this massive blowback from proponents to go for broke. Because it really is their way of saying, ‘screw you, federal government, we’ll do what we want.’”
Asked whether she thought nationwide legalization of pot for recreational use could work, she said it could—under strict circumstances.
“I think if we were to limit that THC (the psychoactive chemical found in cannabis), if that was a federal mandate or a statewide mandate, there might be room to have regulatory controls. Can we do it? Yes. Should we do it? That’s the question.”
Anthony Franciosi, an organic cannabis farmer from Oak Creek, Co., said Thursday that McGuire was overblowing perceived negativity toward legal pot without recognizing the tangible good it’s done for Coloradans.
“I think so far it’s had widespread success,” Franciosi said. “It’s creating jobs. I know several people in the industry in the area where I live who are buying houses where they couldn’t before, making legitimate money in a blue collar environment.”
While McGuire claimed the revenue generated from the pot business so far has missed the mark promised by advocates, Franciosi said there’s actually more than lawmakers know what to do with. Lawmakers normally required by state statute to send unforseen extra tax dollars back to taxpayers now don’t want to let it go.
“There was so much extra tax revenue generated, there’s such a surplus that (lawmakers are) trying to put a law in. It’s so much money, the government is saying, ‘hold on, let’s keep it.’”
In Illinois, things are moving much more slowly. Even though House members approved the measure reducing the penalty for carrying small amounts of cannabis, those same members rejected House Bill 2750, the Cannabis Study Act, which paved the way for lawmakers to explore the regulation and taxation of legal pot.
According to Dan Linn, the executive director of the Illinois chapter of the pro-pot group NORML, Illinois’ slow pace on marijuana reform isn’t always a bad thing.
“I think you get more detailed discussions through the legislature. When it’s up to the voters, it’s more of a concept—should we do this or should we not do this,” he said. Having it out in the General Assembly, he said, could mean lawmakers can cover all the bases before enacting a law, even if it means “everybody’s going to try to carve out their piece of the pie.”
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said after the presentation that he’s not planning to change the way he prosecutes marijuana offenses until there’s a change in the law.
“As long as the laws remain on the books that treat marijuana as a criminal offense, that’s what law enforcement is going to do,” he said. “I think in terms of how the medical marijuana plays out, there are a lot of unanswered questions and everyone is interested to see how it goes.”
Before Illinois approved its concealed carry law, Gibbons was among the first state’s attorneys who announced they would not prosecute anyone afoul of a law that soon would be out the door.
“I made a policy decision prior to the implementation of the (Illinois Concealed Carry Act) that Madison County would not be prosecuting people (for carrying a concealed handgun), but that decision was made based on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which said that that is in fact a right to which people are entitled,” he said. “I think I had a little more firm legal standing for (that) decision.”
He said he won’t be such a trailblazer when it comes to pot.
“That’s certainly not a policy I’m looking at. But these experiments that are going on in different places, I think we need to take a look at them and see what happens,” he said.