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Thursday, March 30, 2017 12:08 am

Pot of gold

Bill would legalize marijuana to close budget gap



In a desperate push to fix the state’s budget woes, some legislators want to legalize marijuana as one way out of the fiscal mess.

Joint bills introduced in the House and Senate in January proposed that adults over the age of 21 can buy up to 28 grams of marijuana for $50 an ounce. The state will license these retailers to adhere to strict regulations to cultivate, buy and sell the drug.

Legal marijuana sales could prove to be lucrative for the state, which has seen a budget impasse that has stretched for almost two years. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, Illinois is projected to earn between $349 million and $699 million in tax revenue each year if marijuana is legalized. (See Potential Tax Revenue from a Regulated Cannabis Market: Illinois, Marijuana Policy Project, March 2017.)

The legalization of marijuana has long been a hot-button issue in Illinois. In 2014, a bill allowing medical marijuana use was signed into law. In 2016, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a bill that decriminalized aspects of marijuana possession. With the state crossing off major provisions on the marijuana reform checklist, the legalization proposals appear to be the final necessary step deregulating the drug.

Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, is chief sponsor of the Senate legalization bill. Steans stated that the proposal is a much-needed revenue source to help close the $4.6 billion budget gap Rauner proposed in this year’s budget address. “It is clear that individuals across the nation are receptive to purchasing marijuana through a legal market,” she said in a press release. “Legalizing and taxing marijuana will not and should not solve all of our budget woes, but it should be a part of the conversation about resolving Illinois’ worsening budget problems. Right now, all the money being spent on marijuana is going into the pockets of criminals and cartels. In a regulated system, the money would go into the cash registers of licensed, taxpaying businesses.”

Steans highlighted Colorado and Oregon, two states that have seen their respective economies grow after legalizing recreational marijuana use. In 2016, Colorado earned $140 million in marijuana sales tax, while Oregon netted over $60 million in revenue. “It would generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year in new revenue for our state,” Steans said. “Prohibition is a financial hole in the ground, and we should stop throwing taxpayer dollars into it.”

Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, introduced the House version of the bill. According to Cassidy, the state’s restriction on the drug to just medical use creates more problems than solutions. “Several states have adopted sensible alternatives to prohibition, and it is time for Illinois to develop its own exit strategy,” Cassidy said. “Regulating marijuana and removing the criminal element from marijuana production and sales will make our communities safer.”

Last year they cosponsored the legislation that decriminalized marijuana, so those in possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis now face civil law fines rather than criminal punishment. Before the decriminalization bill, possession of up to 2.5 grams of marijuana was classified as a Class-C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Possession of 2.5 to 10 grams was considered a Class-B misdemeanor, carrying a maximum jail sentence of six months.

Alex Camp is an editorial intern at Illinois Times. He is pursuing his master’s degree at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact him at intern@illinoistimes.com


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