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How will pot roll out in Illinois? Ask Colorado, Washington and other pioneering states

Thursday, January 02, 2020
Chicago Sun-Times
by Editorial Board

Marijuana is now legal.

You can smoke it. Chew a gummy. Bake it in a brownie.

Illinois still has a big job ahead, though, if this grand experiment in legalization — still far from the norm in the United States — is going to pan out well.

Ten states and the District of Columbia legalized recreational marijuana before Illinois did, and their experiences offer lessons for our state. This is especially true with respect to Colorado and Washington, where recreational cannabis has been legal the longest. Illinois would be wise to listen up.


More emergency room visits

A primary argument for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Illinois was that people were using anyway, so what difference would it make? Legalizing cannabis would steer current users from the black market, run by organized crime, toward safer products.

But as soon as pot became legally available in Colorado, in 2013, more people started showing up in emergency rooms for problems related to marijuana, and hospitals even now report higher rates of mental-health issues associated with pot.

That’s been the trend even though, as reported recently in JAMA Pediatrics, recreational marijuana laws have been correlated with declines in the use of pot by teens. The report in JAMA Pediatrics documented an 8% decline in the number of high school students who reported using marijuana in the last 30 days, and a 9% decline in the number who reported using it at least 10 times in the last 30 days.

An obvious lesson for Illinois is to strictly enforce the legal age limit of 21 on the purchase and use of cannabis. A second lesson, as the jump in emergency room visits indicates, is that cannabis is not unquestionably safe and harmless, certainly not with respect to mental health.

As required by the new Illinois law, a task force has been set up to track the effect of recreational marijuana on public health. Lawmakers should be ready to respond quickly to any problems — and there will be problems — that the task force identifies.

Decline in pot convictions

Meanwhile, there is good news on the criminal justice front.

The number of people sentenced to prison for marijuana-related felonies in Washington state declined rapidly after cannabis was legalized in 2012, according to the Washington State Caseload Forecast Council. A similar decline in Illinois could be in the cards for Illinois, although it likely would be less pronounced. Illinois already has managed to lower marijuana conviction rates, over the last decade, by decriminalizing pot.

Sure to create confusion and unequal application of justice, however, is the patchwork of different ways Illinois communities have chosen to respond to the new law. Many towns and suburbs, including Arlington Heights, Glenview and Naperville, have decided not to allow the sale of recreational marijuana. And local police forces are not all in agreement about what the law allows.

The state law bans the use of marijuana where it can be seen by others in public areas, but what exactly does that mean? It’s a matter of interpretation. The Chicago Police Department, for example, at one point announced that smoking pot in backyards or balconies that are visible from the street would not be permitted, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot countermanded that decision.

Traffic safety predictions

Traffic safety will be a big concern as the new law rolls out, but it’s hard to predict what the impact might be. Traffic studies are all over the map.

In 2017, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute found that crashes increased 6 percent in states that legalized marijuana compared with adjoining states. But a separate study by the American Journal of Public Health found no statistical difference in crash death rates three years after legalization. And last February, yet another study found that traffic deaths rose in three states after recreational pot was legalized, but the effect was only temporary.

Before legalization, many states did not consistently track marijuana-related crashes, making it difficult now to make comparisons. Illinois’ new pot law created a task force, headed by the state police, to monitor the law’s effect on DUIs and also the rapidly improving science of measuring impairment.

Taxes and the black market

Illinois also had better keep an eye on whether high taxes on recreational cannabis drive users to the black market. Cook County is looking at taxing marijuana sales at 3 percent, on top of a 3 percent levy by Chicago and a possible 20 to 30 percent levy by the state.

“We are all concerned about that,” state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, one of the sponsors of the legislation, told us. “Many states had to go back and reduce [their tax rates] when they found their tax rates were too high.”

Other states also experienced shortages of cannabis immediately after legalization, which may have driven some users back to the black market — undermining an important goal of legalization.

While other states have legalized marijuana through ballot initiatives, pot was made legal in Illinois by a vote of the state Legislature. That gives lawmakers here greater flexibility in revising the law to address unintended consequences.

Recreational marijuana has arrived in Illinois, but the governing law remains a work in progress.


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