Rauner gets passing grade on pot policies

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Medical marijuana is rolled into a joint in Belfast, Maine, in 2014. File Photo. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Sun-Times file photo

When it comes to fixing policies on pot, Gov. Bruce Rauner is hardly the biggest buzzkill around.

At least that’s the conclusion of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, which gave Rauner a grade of B- in its latest report cards for governors across the country.

The group noted that Rauner signed two key pieces of legislation this year that changed the marijuana landscape in Illinois.

The first, Senate Bill 10, extended the state’s medical cannabis program to 2020 and opened participation to patients suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome or a terminal illness. The second, Senate Bill 2228, decriminalized the possession of up to 10 grams of pot – about a third of an ounce. That offense is now a civil infraction punishable by a ticket instead of potential jail time.

The only governors who received A’s from NORML were Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Kate Brown of Oregon, who have backed legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

A spokesman for Rauner declined to comment.

Other advocates for changing marijuana policies said that a B- is fair for the first-term governor.

“Many expected that he would be very difficult to work with, that there would be very little compromise, that he wasn’t interested in creating a workable medical marijuana program,” said Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C. “But I think he did better than many would have expected, and we hope things will continue to improve.”

Lindsey hailed the extension and expansion of the medical cannabis program, but he said thousands of patients who could benefit are still left out. Ideally, he said, the program should include chronic pain as a qualifying condition, which would help people suffering from a range of ailments without the need to change the law to include each one.

“This is an opportunity for doctors to use their professional judgment as to what will be helpful to patients,” he said.

Rauner wasn’t always given such high marks by marijuana-reform advocates. In 2015, he vetoed two bills similar to the ones he signed into law this year.

State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who sponsored the bills creating the medical marijuana program and then extending it, gave the governor credit for signing onto the changes this year. But Lang said they should have happened sooner.

“I’m not sure what the governor’s attitude is toward the medical marijuana program except that he hasn’t made it easy for us to help patients,” Lang said.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) said she could also understand Rauner’s grade from NORML.

“I think he can totally be a B-minus student,” Cassidy said. “The last move with the medical program showed a willingness to be thoughtful that previously had not been in evidence. So I really do hope this is a sign of good things to come.”

Cassidy was the chief sponsor of a 2015 bill that would have made possession of up to 15 grams of pot — about half an ounce — a ticketable offense.

After months of negotiation, that bill passed the General Assembly. But Rauner issued an amendatory veto, saying possession of more than 10 grams should remain a criminal act. Legislators eventually agreed to the compromise, writing the 10-gram threshold into the bill Rauner signed this summer.

Cassidy says she’s now drafting legislation to allow marijuana to be taxed and regulated for recreational use.

“There’s a lot of money being left on the table,” Cassidy said.

Recreational use is already allowed in four states and the District of Columbia. Voters in five more states are weighing in on legalization measures in this election.

Backing such a bill would probably earn Rauner a top grade from NORML, which backs legalization. But Cassidy doesn’t expect the idea to catch fire in Illinois right away.

“We will see the conversation beginning,” she said. “But I think it will be a long conversation.”

Mick Dumke is a Sun-Times reporter. Emily Gray Brosious works for Extract, which covers the marijuana industry.

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