Legislators seek feedback on legalizing recreational marijuana

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Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) speaks at a press conference Wednesday in support of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. She was joined by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and Rev. Al Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. | Andrea Salcedo/For the Sun-Times

Two Illinois legislators want the state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

But they’re determined to “do this in a very public way,” as one of put it, so they are planning a series of public forums to before moving forward with their bill.

If state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, both Chicago Democrats, are successful, they would make Illinois the first Midwest state to legalize recreational marijuana.

The lawmakers have introduced bills in both chambers (Senate Bill 316; House Bill 2353) that would allow adults 21 and older to possess, grow, and buy marijuana (in smaller amounts). Businesses would be licensed by the state to grow and sell marijuana, and the state also would create and enforce health and safety regulations, including labeling requirements. Possession of up to 28 grams would be legal.

The first hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday, April 19 at 10 a.m. at the Bilandic Building. A second forum will be held that night at a location to be announced, likely in one of their districts.

“We are starting and want to do this in a very public way,” Steans said at a news conference Wednesday morning at the Thompson Center. “Having a large dialogue and public conversation about what’s the right way of thinking about this for Illinois.”’

Steans argued that recreational marijuana prohibition doesn’t work; many people in Illinois use it recreationally, and are clearly willing to buy it illegally to do so, she said.

Cassidy said they are not in a hurry to pass legislation because they “want to do it right” and that means having an open discussion to help obtain the legislative majority they need.

That also means, Steans added, that the bills won’t be brought for a vote this spring.

“We want to have a very thorough and thoughtful conversation to ensure that the bill that ultimately becomes law in Illinois reflects all the best practices,” Cassidy said.

Last year, Illinois decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana. Medical marijuana also is legal in the state.

Both legislators see their bills as a way to increase state revenue, reduce the prison population, allow law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes and create more jobs and economic development.

Barbara Brohl, the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Revenue, is scheduled to attend the morning hearing on April 19 to testify about how legalizing recreational marijuana has affected Colorado. Additionally, Karmen Hanson, the program director of the Health Program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, will also provide testimony on what other states have done around legalizing the drug.

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