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Dems promote pot legalization plan during North Side town hall: ‘This is coming’

State Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy laid out their plan to end Illinois’ prohibition on pot at a North Side town hall last week. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

The Democratic lawmakers with plans to promote legalizing recreational pot use in Illinois said Thursday they’re waiting for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to name a “point person” in his administration before they introduce their legislation.

State Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy laid out their proposal to end Illinois’ prohibition on pot in the coming months for more than 200 people Thursday night at a forum on recreational pot legalization at the Athenaeum Theatre in the Lake View neighborhood. The North Side Democrats previously introduced similar legislation in 2017 that failed to gain much traction in Springfield.

No one from Pritzker’s administration participated in the town hall, although the newly-elected pro-pot governor has come out in support of Steans’ and Cassidy’s proposal. During his transition, Cassidy sat on Pritzker’s Restorative Justice and Public Safety Committee, which offered suggestions for the upcoming pot legalization effort.

Steans noted that the proposal had already garnered bipartisan support.

“We come at it from the place of, this is coming,” Steans said, outlining her method for talking to opponents. “This is a when and not an if.”

“Prohibition simply does not work for cannabis,” said Steans, who told the Sun-Times that she and Cassidy hope to introduce their new legislation by March to allow ample time for legislative hearings.

When Illinois Senate President John Cullerton asked the town hall crowd whether they support legal cannabis, nearly every hand in the venue darted skyward.

The overwhelming support in the room wasn’t exactly surprising — separate polls conducted over the past two years by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois Carbondale showed that about two-thirds of Illinois voters favored cannabis legalization.

Under Steans’ and Cassidy’s proposal, Illinoisans over the age of 21 would be able to buy up to an ounce of marijuana from licensed dispensaries. Additionally, Illinois residents would be allowed to grow up to five cannabis plants at their home, something that is currently prohibited under the state’s medical cannabis law.

Revenue from legal pot sales would be used to “support law enforcement and pay for public education campaigns, substance abuse treatment and programs to repair harms to communities adversely affected by the War on Drugs,” according to a slide projected during the presentation.

Cassidy focused specifically on addressing the toll of the drug war and the pervasive racial inequity in the cannabis industry.

“The reality is, this is a social justice issue,” Cassidy said. “This is a criminal justice issue. This is about right and wrong, but there is still the money.”

During Cassidy’s speech, she commended Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for backing the legalization effort during a speech Thursday to the City Club of Chicago. Foxx also vowed to expunge all misdemeanor pot convictions, something the pot legalization bill aims to accomplish statewide — as well as wiping clean certain marijuana-related felonies.

Now, Steans and Cassidy expect the Pritzker administration will name a “point person” on the issue.

“We really have tee’d up a whole bunch of questions that we need to work through with them, or that’s the goal anyway,” Steans told the Sun-Times. “So, once we have that person identified, we’ll sort of work through some of those issues and get it out there.”