With Pritzker and Madigan on board, Dems push again for pot legalization

State Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy introduced legislation last March to legalize recreational cannabis in Illinois, but the bills failed in both houses of the Legislature.

A lot has since changed in Illinois politics, and the Chicago Democrats now plan to give it another try.

On Election Day, pro-pot Democrat J.B. Pritzker cruised to victory past Gov. Bruce Rauner and fellow Democrats expanded the party’s majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. On top of that, powerful Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan announced last week that he now supports Pritzker’s proposal to legalize marijuana for adult use.

When lawmakers reconvene in January for the first legislative session of the new year, Steans and Cassidy plan to introduce new legislation aimed at fully legalizing weed.

“It is a more encouraging landscape, for sure,” Steans said. “Particularly since Governor Rauner had been pretty outspoken in opposing [legalization].”

“It definitely has shifted the environment and we think that it gives us a lot more momentum to get it passed in the General Assembly in short order,” she added.

While many details are still being hashed out, the plan would legalize the sale and use of cannabis for people over 21 years old and include a six-month period for officials to create rules and issue licenses should it be passed into law.

Steans and Cassidy have already been getting input from various groups in Springfield and discussing their plan with Pritzker, who made recreational pot legalization a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign.

“JB supports legalizing and taxing the recreational use of marijuana, and is confident we are ready to do this in a safe and economically beneficial way in Illinois,” said Jason Rubin, a Pritzker spokesman. “As governor, he is committed to working with leaders in the General Assembly, listening to experts and community leaders, and drawing lessons and best practices from other states to move this forward.”

On the campaign trail, Pritzker repeatedly claimed legal pot could create between $350 million and $700 million in annual tax revenue. The findings of a new study conducted by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fall in line with those estimates.

The study, published three days after Pritzker was elected, found that full-on legalization could create over 23,600 new jobs and $525 million in tax revenues, including $505 million for the state and $20 million for local governments.

Deciding how to split that revenue will likely serve as the crux of the state’s legalization debate. Steans noted that the tax money would likely go toward the state’s general revenue fund, public schools, public health services and possibly toward “new tools” for law enforcement officials. However, no specifics have been set, including the rate at which recreational cannabis products would be taxed.

“We’ve asked some economists to come in, study, give us some recommendations on how to set the tax rate to sort of optimize revenue and keep people in the legal system,” Steans said.

She noted that low tax rates can lead to supply shortages, while high taxes can push consumers back to the black market. Both she and Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said lawmakers would also look at how other states have taxed and divided cannabis revenues.

“Then you’ll have to see what needs to be done to build majorities in the House and the Senate to see what needs to be done to get a bill passed,” Brown said.

Despite their party holding majorities in both houses, Steans and Cassidy have already started crossing party lines to build Republican support for their proposal. Nevertheless, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin remains opposed to full-on legalization after backing recent measures that expanded the state’s medical cannabis program.

“I do not support the legalization of recreational marijuana,” Durkin told the Sun-Times earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Smart Approaches to Marijuana — a Virginia-based nonprofit — is mounting a sophisticated opposition to legalization efforts in Illinois, much like the group has in other states.

“With our allies, we have and will continue to target districts where lawmakers are on the fence on commercialization, and we are continuing to put pressure on Springfield and target legislators on the fence,” said SAM CEO Kevin Sabet, who co-founded the group with former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy and was a drug policy adviser in three presidential administrations. “We are also planning media campaigns and awareness activities.”

In addition, SAM recently launched its Healthy and Productive Illinois project, an anti-legalization coalition that includes the Illinois Chiefs of Police Association, the Illinois Drug Enforcement Officers Association, the Midwest Truckers Association and the Illinois Association of Housing Authorities.

“They have spearheaded efforts to reach into every city, every town, and every neighborhood in the attempt to slow down the thoughtless rush to legalization,” Sabet added.

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