Republican AG candidate Erika Harold up for ‘exploring’ legalizing marijuana

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Republican Attorney General Primary Candidate Erika Harold. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Erika Harold opposed legalizing marijuana back in 2014 when she ran for Congress — but on Tuesday, the Republican attorney general candidate said she believes Illinois should start “exploring” legalization.

She noted that there is a push in Illinois to legalize pot, and the state should be ready.

“I want Illinois to prepared for that because I think that’s ultimately where we’re going to be,” Harold said. “And I think we want to be prepared to deal with it in a way that makes sense and that protects people as much as possible.”

It’s a view her primary opponent, attorney Gary Grasso — a DuPage County Board member and former mayor of Burr Ridge — doesn’t share. He opposes legalization but is open to further study.

While Harold — who lost a bid for Congress in 2014 to U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis — criticized outgoing attorney general Lisa Madigan for over-politicizing her post in fighting President Donald Trump’s policies, the Harvard-educated lawyer and former Miss America on Tuesday also took issue with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memo that rescinded a policy that discouraged federal prosecutors in most marijuana cases from bringing charges wherever the drug is legal under state laws. It essentially allows federal prosecutors to more aggressively prosecute marijuana laws.

Marijuana is still under federal jurisdiction, even in states that have legalized it, but the “Cole memo” sought to give federal prosecutors the ability to focus their resources elsewhere. Sessions in his memo called the shift a “return to the rule of law.”

“My position is our state should probably start exploring legalizing,” Harold said in a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, when asked about the Sessions’ memo and her general thoughts on legalizing marijuana.

“I strongly disagree with rescinding the Cole memo because of a couple of reasons. First of all, I don’t think law enforcement resources should be directed toward marijuana at this point in time,” Harold said. ” I think the opioid crisis is much larger and much more destructive.”

Harold said the Sessions memo didn’t come with decisions or directives, while calling it “problematic.”

Republican Attorney General Primary Candidates Gary Grasso, left, and Erika Harold met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Republican Attorney General Primary Candidates Gary Grasso, left, and Erika Harold met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Grasso — who has litigated for 30 years — said he doesn’t support legalizing marijuana in Illinois — raising questions about whether it will truly be a revenue source and enforcement problems, amid other issues.

“Right now my answer is no. I think we have to study the situation to see what the impacts are,” Grasso said. “And the Legislature shouldn’t act right now. But I’m up for studying it further to see if it can be done.”

Grasso, however, said he supports medical marijuana use in the state.

Harold later told the Sun-Times her view has indeed “evolved” regarding legalization. She cited involvement in litigation regarding THC, studying sentencing disparities and looking into what resources are available instead to battle the opioid epidemics as reasons for the change of view.

Harold — who is supported by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois Republican Party — said she doesn’t believe she’ll lose Republican voters on the issue.

“It’s an issue that I think a lot of people are re-evaluating their position as it relates to what is actually working on a quantitative basis,” Harold said. “I think a lot of people are willing to look at this issue in a more systemic and comprehensive way, especially in light of issues that we’re facing with opioids and the need to direct resources.”

Legalization is a hot-button issue in Illinois, and Harold’s position puts her at odds with Rauner. While the Republican governor has said it would be a “mistake” to legalize marijuana, Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls J.B. Pritzker and State Sen. Daniel Biss are on board with legalization. Businessman Chris Kennedy says he supports decriminalizing marijuana but wants to see more studies done to understand the effects of legalizing the drug.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, in January 2017  introduced legislation that would legalize and tax recreational marijuana — using the money as a new revenue source for the state. Steans said she’s holding onto the bill until 2019 — after next year’s gubernatorial election.

Despite his opposition to recreational marijuana, Rauner instituted a medical marijuana pilot program that started doling out weed to patients in 2015. And Rauner last year signed a bill that decriminalized the possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana, making it a ticketable offense subject to fines of $100 to $200.

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