Recreational pot not a pipe dream

But marijuana won’t be be legalized overnight, says NORML Illinois Executive Director Dan Linn

NORML Illinois Executive Director Dan Linn talks legalization at the medical-marijuana dispensary he manages in Chicago. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

NORML Illinois Executive Director Dan Linn talks legalization at the medical-marijuana dispensary he manages in Chicago. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Hold on there, Illinoisans. Don’t roll another number just yet in expectation that the state could still beat Michigan to legalizing marijuana.

“I’m very unoptimistic that Illinois will actually beat Michigan to having retail sales,” said Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Illinois would have to pass the law almost immediately in the spring session, have it have an immediate effective date, and then set rules and regulations drafted by the agencies that are going to oversee the program.”

That last part of the process alone, Linn said, typically takes 90 to 100 days as legal eagles thoroughly vet the law and its enforcement. And that’s entirely after what he termed “the sausage-making process” of getting the language set as the law moves through the General Assembly.

Even so, some have speculated that Illinois could still catch Michigan in cutting through the bureaucratic red tape and legalizing retail sales of cannabis, after Michigan voters approved legalization in a referendum last month, and Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker called last week for the General Assembly to “get at it,” as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was throwing his weight behind legalization as well.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has already announced his support for legalization, as well as a progressive income tax, but the question, according to sources, is whether he’ll agree to push those immediately as part of a Pritzker “first 100 days” initiative after the new governor takes office Jan. 14, or whether he’ll hold those measures for the end of the session, using them as leverage to extract votes on other pieces of legislation along the way, as is his usual modus operandi.

Regardless, Linn said the debate has shifted abruptly on legalization, “changing the conversation from should we legalize cannabis to how do we legalize cannabis.”

Linn added, “We’ve seen a shift from that being a political liability — with lawmakers not wanting to talk about it, maybe privately supporting it but not wanting to vote for it — to a political asset. People want to get out in front on this issue.”

He projected a nine-month process to get it done, making legal weed a possibility in Illinois before this time next year.

Linn added, however, that quick as things have changed, it’s still not unlike a rock star who becomes an “overnight sensation” after putting in years on the road.

“As somebody who’s been around trying to legalize cannabis for almost 15 years, it’s taken much longer than I ever thought it would,” Linn said while standing in the lobby of the Maribis of Chicago Medical Marijuana Dispensary he manages in the Brighton Park neighborhood.

Linn grew up in the Fox Lake area, and got interested in the Prohibition era while studying history in high school. Calling Prohibition “a noble experiment, only it failed,” he pointed to how it led to a rise in gangsters and in political corruption — with clear parallels to the so-called war on drugs.

In fact, he acknowledged that many legislators, such as Chicago state Rep. Will Guzzardi, are insistent that the law be worded in a way that benefits poor and minority communities that have borne the brunt of criminalization of marijuana over the past several decades.

“Do we want to have any equity in a new law that allows people who were disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs to get a foothold in this new industry?” Linn said. Others, he granted, want to see some of whatever revenue legalization brings in diverted to law enforcement.

Similarly, the tax system has to be worked out carefully, he added. “What type of taxes do we have on this new product? Because if we overtax it, it’s going to keep people in that underground, illicit market.

“That said, you also want to bring in enough tax revenue that the state sees this as something that’s viable and worthwhile to pursue.”

Linn said he’s “cautiously optimistic” legislators will arrive at compromises on those and other thorny issues, in part because of the large amount of money to be tapped — with estimates running from $700 million from Pritzker to $525 million and up from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute.

“We’re talking about a big revenue pie,” Linn said. “You’re going to have a lot of people who want to get a piece of it.”


“We’re talking about a big revenue pie. You’re going to have a lot of people who want to get a piece of it.”

NORML Illinois Executive Director Dan Linn (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Illinois has already moved forward to legalize industrial hemp, and the federal Farm Bill just passed by Congress also legalizes hemp nationwide. Linn said it was actually encouraging that the “conservative politics” of groups like the Illinois Farm Bureau are taking the first tentative steps toward accepting industrial hemp and legal weed.

“I would be surprised if they don’t see this as another opportunity for farmers in the bigger picture,” Linn said.

He said NORML policy is that the state and employers are still well within their rights to outlaw smoking reefer behind the wheel or on the job, but added that a “zero tolerance” policy on having any marijuana in one’s system was doomed to fail.

“We do think there’s a place for workplace impairment to be maintained” as illegal, Linn said. “Employers should not have to tolerate employees who are impaired at the job.” He quickly added, however, “The way that the body processes cannabis makes it a lot different from testing for other substances,” like alcohol.

According to Linn, NORML membership has been growing with the increased interest in legalization, and policing those worksite and DUI policies is one area for the consumer-advocacy group to focus on — in the days to come when marijuana might be fully legalized.

Linn, who splits his time managing another Maribis dispensary in Springfield, which dovetails with his ongoing lobbying efforts, will be watching the process play out in the General Assembly and with the new governor.

“There’s a strong push right now, but a lot of details need to get worked out,” he said. “And that’s part of the sausage-making process. We’ll see if they actually get something through both chambers and on his desk by the end of the spring session.”