A Pass-around Agenda?

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful J.B. Pritzker wants to legalize marijuana as part of his crime-fighting plan, which he unveiled Thursday at the DuSable Museum of African American History.

“We don’t need more studies on this,” Pritzker said. “We need to act. Let’s legalize marijuana. Let’s regulate it to make it safe. Let’s tax it. Let’s reinvest in the hardest hit communities.”

And he’s not alone in a field of primary challengers. State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, is also on board with legalization, while businessman Chris Kennedy has been a bit more careful with his words, saying he supports decriminalizing marijuana but wants to see more studies done to understand the effects of legalizing the drug.

Either way, victory by any one of those Democratic candidates could mean some big changes for Illinois. A key sponsor of legislation to legalize marijuana said it will be a “longterm” process — meaning proponents would be unlikely to attempt passage until 2019 — when Democrats hope Illinois will see a new governor to replace Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Legalization essentially means adults won’t be arrested, fined or otherwise penalized for recreational marijuana use or possession. Decriminalization is less sweeping. It generally means violators will not be subjected to criminal prosecutions for smaller amounts, often treating it as a civil offense, punishable only by fines — not jail time.

Alaska Cannabis Club CEO Charlo Greene smokes a joint at the medical marijuana dispensary in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2015. (AP File Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Rauner’s campaign on Thursday wouldn’t comment on his thoughts on legalizing marijuana. But in April, the governor called recreational marijuana “a very, very difficult subject.” He said he wouldn’t support legalizing marijuana unless there’s a study of the “ramifications” in states that have legalized the drug.

But 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.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, in January introduced legislation that would legalize and tax recreational marijuana — using the money as a new revenue source for the state. It would legalize the possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana and would allow facilities to sell marijuana products.

Steans said she plans to hold another hearing about the legislation on Nov. 28.

“Really right now we’re trying to get as much input as we can so that in the next session we can put out a new draft of the legislation to do hearings. In January we’ll do another public health hearing about this,” Steans said on Thursday. “We think this is a long-term process. … I’m not sure whether we’re likely to get his signature but you know. Whether it’s him or whomever else, we’re going to push it.”

Steans — who has endorsed Pritzker for governor — noted an election year “isn’t the time” to push for legalizing marijuana: “In 2019, we’ll hopefully be in position.”

Pritzker has made legalization part of his crime-fighting plan.

“We need to legalize marijuana in Illinois,” Pritzker said to some applause Thursday. “Criminalization of marijuana doesn’t make our communities safe. It has disproportionately impacted brown and black communities. There are way too many people, and I mean way too many people, who have gone to prison or are currently sitting in prison for having small amounts of marijuana.”

Biss, too, wants to legalize and regulate marijuana, which he says will increase tax revenue, reduce law enforcement costs and bring jobs to the state. He’s also argued current marijuana laws disproportionately target African Americans despite similar rates of use between white and black Americans. He was added as a co-sponsor to Steans’ bill in April.

(From left) Illinois gubernatorial candidates J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy, State Sen. Daniel Biss and Tio Hardiman during the Progressive Gubernatorial Forum on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In a candidate questionnaire provided by the Kennedy campaign, Kennedy wrote that he supports expanding access to alternative pain treatments, including broadening access to medical marijuana under the guidance of medical professionals while also pushing for “holistics therapy practices” across hospitals.

Kennedy’s official stance on marijuana is that he wants it “available to the extent that reputable scientists and medical professional[s] advise,” while also pushing not to prosecute and overcrowd jails because of “possession of a modest amount of marijuana.”

Kennedy believes legalizing marijuana should be separated from the issue of using taxes as a revenue stream to fund state government, according to his website.

And he wants more studies on the impact of legalizing marijuana.

“If the medical and scientific evidence supports the legalization of marijuana, then Illinois should legalize marijuana, whether it is helpful to the state budget or not. This decision should be taken on its own merit and not made in the fog of political conflict over paying for state government,” the campaign says on its website.

A campaign spokesman on Thursday said Kennedy has reached out to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to talk about lessons the state has learned. Problems included children accessing marijuana edibles. The campaign said Kennedy wants to make sure to evaluate legalization fully with medical and scientific experts, and then take their recommendations.

The Illinois Chiefs of Police Association opposes legalization.

In a 2017 study commissioned by Rauner and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, about 80 percent of police chiefs and county sheriffs responding to the report said marijuana was highly available within their areas. But just under five percent of respondents said marijuana was the greatest drug threat, “which may be a result of state law changes and changing views of marijuana as a threat,” the report said.