EDITORIAL: Five questions about legal pot that demand better answers

SHARE EDITORIAL: Five questions about legal pot that demand better answers

Cook County commissioners voted unanimously for a referendum item on the March ballot that would allow voters to weigh in on legalizing recreational marijuana. | File photo

Marijuana use can be traced back in history more than 4,700 years. Yet we still haven’t sorted this thing out.

At a time when our whole nation has its hands full with the opioid crisis, we see no wisdom in Illinois rushing headlong into legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. There are still too many questions, and other states and countries — where pot already has been legalized — will soon enough have a better handle on the answers.


Worse yet would be if Illinois legalized recreational marijuana just so it can be taxed. Any debate about the merits of legal marijuana should have nothing to do with trying to rescue our state’s sorry finances.

On Tuesday, a state Senate committee held a hearing on legislation to legalize marijuana use, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, both Chicago Democrats. Their star witness was Rick Steves, the travel guide whose jaunts around Europe are a public television favorite. Steves argued that legalizing and regulating marijuana would put a big dent in the cannabis black market and the crime it stokes.

Clearly, attitudes about marijuana are changing. Earlier this month, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol turned in enough signatures to put the proposal to legalize marijuana on Michigan’s ballot. A new poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation and the Drug Policy Alliance found that 62 percent of New York voters back legalizing marijuana use for people 21 and older. And in March, a poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University found two-thirds of Illinoisans support legalizing recreational marijuana use as long as it is regulated and taxed like alcohol.

But count us among the more cautious observers who, though not necessarily ultimately opposed to legalization, who would love to hear better answers to basic questions.

  • Will more and younger people start using marijuana if it becomes legal for adults? Would legalization send the message that pot is fine and dandy, and would it become even easier to get — just like alcohol — from an older sibling or a friend?
  • Can marijuana do harm to the developing brains of young people? Might legalization put us on the road to a long-term medical crisis?
  • Would more people drive stoned? As we understand the state of the research, nobody has come up with a sure-fire way to confidently judge the impairment of motorists who have used marijuana. There is great debate about how much pot in a driver’s body is too much pot. Would legal penalties be sufficient to keep our roads safe?
  • Would an Illinois legalization program run afoul of federal prosecutors, who have threatened to crack down on states that have legalized medical marijuana?
  • Would legal pot really push the marijuana black market out of business, given that the legal stuff likely would be taxed heavily? Asked about that, Steves didn’t directly answer the question. But in his home state of Washington, where marijuana was legalized five years ago, he said he constantly gets hugged by “lots of big beautiful Baptist ministers” who are thrilled pot is now legal because illegal sales historically landed young black men, above all others, in jail. They are, he said, “so thankful.”

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey wants to put the question to the voters of Cook County in next year’s primary election. He sees a nonbinding referendum question as part of the educational process to inform people of the benefits of legalizing marijuana.

Fritchey said legalization would unclog the court system and keep a huge number of young people from unnecessarily acquiring an arrest record, which makes it harder to get jobs and student loans. Steans and Cassidy say legalization would raise nearly $700 million in tax revenue and generate thousands of jobs. To appear on the March 20 ballot, the referendum must be approved by the County Board’s Dec. 13 meeting.

The best argument for legalizing marijuana is that prohibition has not worked, just as it did not work for alcohol. Legalization may be the better way.

But let’s demand some better answers to basic questions first.

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