1IL Opinion: Don't wait to legalize marijuana in Illinois
Clergy for a New Drug Policy touts provisions on social justice
By Rev. Alexander E. Sharp
Finally, we have the opportunity to legalize marijuana in Illinois. Senate Bill 7, now before the General Assembly, would permit and regulate marijuana use for adults over 21. Our new governor is committed to the measure. Over 60 percent of Illinoisans are in favor and have been for a long time. Yet some are still saying, “Let’s wait another year.” Here’s why they are wrong.
Let’s start by looking at what this bill does. First, it begins to reverse social injustices that our marijuana laws have quietly and cruelly inflicted over the past 80 years. Most of Gov. Pritzker’s May 4 press conference announcing the bill was dedicated to this point.
Illinois will allocate huge anticipated revenue from cannabis sales to restoring communities the War on Drugs has done so much to destroy. It will expunge the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of residents convicted of minor marijuana offenses that would not have been illegal under this legislation. It offers jobs and access to capital to minorities now operating in an illicit market that too often leads to their arrests.
Gov. Pritzker and his staff have given us a bill that can be a model for the nation when it comes to repairing past wrongs. Other states will look to Illinois, as they did when the state passed its widely recognized medical-marijuana legislation in 2013. We should not wait another year to act when it comes to social justice.
Moreover, SB7 reflects the best way to respond to the potential for all substance abuse, including by young people. We know that teen use has not increased in the 10 states that have legalized adult-use cannabis. Why? Regulation and education work; prohibition does not.
Education and, when necessary, treatment are better responses than arrests and incarceration. It has taken us far too long to figure this out. But as a society we now know this is the way to go. Changing our marijuana laws is a critical part of this long-overdue national transformation.
We constantly hear that marijuana today is more potent than in the days of Woodstock 50 years ago. That’s precisely why we need a legal market that is taxed and regulated. When purchasing in a black market, potency and possible adulteration are threats. But in regulated markets, content and amount are clearly labeled. This protects against exactly what opponents of legalization say we should be afraid of.
We also know that taxpayers in Illinois continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year enforcing cannabis laws. Yet prosecutions for possession have dropped significantly in most states that have legalized it. The changes proposed in SB7 will relieve an overburdened criminal-justice and court system and save taxpayer money.
Are all the issues surrounding SB7 resolved at this point? Of course not. We are, as they say, in the sausage-making stage, and stakeholders are pursuing their interests. Law enforcement wants more of the anticipated revenue from the bill (10 percent rather than the currently proposed 8 percent). There is debate over the “home grow” provision. Labor wants to protect worker rights in the new industry.
The fact that all those who support SB7 are still working to shape this legislation should not be an excuse for further delay. Some questions will only be resolved as we learn from experience and further debate.
Cannabis policy has been a serious discussion in Illinois for years, and we used that time to hear from other states, look at their example, and build on our own experience with regulated medical cannabis. Waiting another year just perpetuates a system we know is a failure. But this year, Illinois has the opportunity to pass a meaningful law that draws from those lessons, improves on them, and provides the nation with a model of social justice and drug policy reform. This is a critical moment. We should seize it.
Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is executive director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy.