Rep. Cassidy to be 'ready on Day One' with pot bill
Lead House sponsor of legalization sees likely startup New Year 2020
By Ted Cox
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy admits that her first attempt at legalizing marijuana was sort of a dry run.
With Gov. Rauner threatening a veto, her legalization bill “was never intended to move,” Cassidy said Thursday.
Times have changed, however, and the Illinois governor will change as well next month with the inauguration of J.B. Pritzker, who has speculated that recreational marijuana could add $700 million a year to cash-strapped state coffers.
“This is very important to the incoming administration,” Cassidy said.
How fast will a new legalization bill move through the General Assembly?
“We don’t know yet,” said the Chicago Democrat. “We can be ready on Day One. We can get this done pretty quickly — if that’s the desire.”
Key, she said, was that a lot of the basic groundwork was executed behind her initial bill. Cassidy said she set out to “make thoughtful use of the couple of years that we had” to engage all elements of the state and thoroughly research the topic to “come up with the best possible proposal” for legalization.
“We really wanted input from everybody whose lives might be touched,” she added.
In short, while she’s preparing to submit “a completely new bill” in the new General Assembly, topics like criminal justice and social equity have already been largely ironed out, to her way of thinking.
Recreational marijuana will build on the state’s program for medical marijuana, which, while restrictive, has been exemplary. “It’s a really solid program,” she added. Even businesses that invested heavily for what became a slow rollout have been “pretty happy with it.”
Yet Cassidy emphasized they won’t be the only ones involved. “The hope is there will be more — more small players,” she added.
Cassidy sided firmly with Chicago state Rep. Will Guzzardi — or maybe it’s vice versa — that minority communities that bore the brunt of the so-called War on Drugs should be the first to benefit from legalization.
“It’s also about local ownership. It’s about fostering economic development in all sorts of communities,” Cassidy said. “Access to the industry and the repair-of-harm component related to communities impacted by the War on Drugs is hugely important — and frankly is the hill I’m willing to die on. It is my motivating force.
“We have to make sure that we are creating opportunity for minority owners, women owners, veteran owners — folks who have traditionally been locked out of this industry, largely because of the costs of entry.”
Cassidy cited the backing of Lt. Gov.-elect Juliana Stratton, who she said had taken a “hands-on” approach to the issue already while serving in the state House.
Workplaces will still be able to prohibit use, and it will still constitute driving under the influence for those who get behind the wheel high — just as legislated under the medical-marijuana law. Cassidy said that she had reached out to numerous law-enforcement officials to say, “We don’t expect you to support this — ever. What we want is to find out from you what you need to see happen to live under this and do your job better.”
Cassidy said it’s unrealistic at this point to set limits. Zero tolerance, she pointed out, didn’t work, because trace amounts of marijuana can remain in the blood for a month or more.
“That’s going to sort itself out,” she added. “Quite frankly, that’s an issue that’s going to be sorted out by the courts.”
Like others in the industry, Cassidy acknowledged that there’s little research on what constitutes “impairment,” and there won’t be until the federal government loosens reins on testing. “We’re trying to fit it into a .08 box when it’s not the same,” Cassidy said, making reference to the legal blood-alcohol level. “It doesn’t work that way.”
She pointed out, “It took us a while to land at .08.”
Similarly with banks, as the federal banking system will have to loosen reins on marijuana money to keep it from being an increasingly dangerous cash business.
But Cassidy pointed out that the growing amount of research on legal pot should be enough to calm the Nervous Nellies who resist it.
“Usage rates don’t go up in states that legalize,” she said. Yes, oldsters might be increasingly apt to return to their college days by rolling another number, but that’s balanced out by a drop in use among teenagers — as noticed in Colorado.
Cassidy cited findings that teens typically find it easier to score weed than brews — something that should change with legalization, as laws are changed to mimic those against providing alcohol to minors.
“The guy I see slinging weed in my neighborhood, I’ve never seen him card anyone,” Cassidy said. “So we fundamentally want to change that dynamic.”
They’ll have to watch the taxation level and the hidden costs of regulation, because if it’s too pricey it won’t dry up the black market that already exists. “Places that have overtaxed have seen their black market grow,” Cassidy said. But with 10 states now offering legal weed, again the data are growing on what tax levels are tolerant and what’s excessive.
Cassidy said estimates on what the state can rake in range from $350 million to $750 million a year — which exerts a lot of pressure in Illinois with its persistent budget problems. “We’re guessing it’s probably somewhere in the middle,” she said.
Yet Cassidy quickly added, “If you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it wrong. And if you’re doing it for the money, you’re going to end up with less money.”
It has to be acknowledged that it’s a wide-ranging social issue, not just a cash cow for the state. Cassidy was skeptical about Illinois catching up with Michigan to become the first Midwest state to actually offer retail sales of legal pot, as the rule-making process once the bill passes could take an additional six months, but she said it was possible to have things up and running for New Year’s Day 2020.
So, at that point, the question becomes whether House Speaker Michael Madigan puts it on the fast track for that best-case scenario or delays it for use as leverage on other matters in the House, as is his usual modus operandi.
“The speaker has expressed his full support for this,” Cassidy said. “He knows how important this is to the incoming administration. So I’m hopeful we can see some quick movement on it. We’ll see what happens.”