BROWN: Conservative GOP support for pot legalization could tip scale

SHARE BROWN: Conservative GOP support for pot legalization could tip scale
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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

The legalization of marijuana in Illinois has begun to take on an air of inevitability — this week’s decision by the Cook County Board to hold a non-binding referendum in March providing just the latest evidence.

But it wasn’t the high-profile decision by our left-leaning county commissioners that convinced me nearly as much as a relatively obscure pronouncement a week earlier by a downstate Republican legislator.

Sen. Jason Barickman, a decidedly conservative lawmaker from Bloomington, announced on Facebook he is willing to support legalized cannabis “if it is done correctly.”

Doing it correctly, in Barickman’s view, would include taxing marijuana sales and using the new revenue to pay down state debt and provide tax relief.

That strikes me as a potential game-changer.

OPINION

If conservative Republicans start using fiscal sense and individual liberty arguments to get behind an idea that historically has been the domain of Chicago liberals, the political equation becomes much more do-able.

Barickman told me Friday he is among those who now believe legalized marijuana is “inevitable.”

“I think it’s a matter of when, not if,” he said. “I think there’s a strong fiscal argument supporting legalization.”

Given that inevitability, Barickman said he thinks it’s important that conservatives have a seat at the negotiating table to help shape any legislation.

Barickman, 42, is a lawyer. He grew up on a farm and served in the Army National Guard. Although his district includes Illinois State University, it votes strongly Republican.

On the surface, this would seem to be outside his comfort zone, although Barickman voted in 2015 in favor of legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Illinois Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Heather Steans (D-Chicago) with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) brought in travel guru Rick Steves to help make the case for the legalization of marijuana. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Illinois Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Heather Steans (D-Chicago) with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) are among those making the case for the legalization of marijuana — but a downstate Republican lawmaker also backs the idea. | Sun-Times file photo

Still, there’s always been a big gap between those who could support marijuana decriminalization, eliminating jail time for someone in possession of small amounts, and those backing legalization.

“For my constituents, there’s going to be a wide array of very strong feelings on this. I’ve heard from every person on the spectrum in this debate,” Barickman said.

To win his support, Barickman said there also will need to be “appropriate safeguards” to keep the drug away from minors, and close consultation with law enforcement officials.

Barickman said he doesn’t know how much tax money can be generated by legalizing marijuana.

“It’s going to be a significant number. Some say tens of millions. Some say hundreds of millions,” he said.

Nearly as significant as any revenue, Barickman said, is the potential savings from law enforcement no longer having to enforce its prohibition.

“Laws restricting cannabis result in an inefficient use of taxpayers’ money. … Money spent on this fight isn’t working, and those dollars could be going elsewhere,” Barickman said in his Facebook post, not sounding all that different from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Barickman said he already has shared his ideas with Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who plans to put forth a new marijuana legalization bill early next year.

By that point, Barickman could have company.

“We have bipartisan support in both chambers and are working on a new draft with input from a wide array of stakeholders, including more Republican members we believe will be cosponsors of an updated bill,” said the proposal’s lead House sponsor, Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago.

Just before Barickman publicly declared his support for the legalization effort, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced his opposition, saying he believes it would be a “mistake” at this point without further study of the impact in states that already have moved to legalize.

That could slow things down a bit.

Although a General Assembly vote is “conceivable” in 2018, “most likely it’s 2019,” Barickman said.

When that day comes, Barickman doesn’t expect to be any lone wolf.

“I wholly anticipate that when a vote is held, I won’t be the only Republican voting for this,” he said.

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