Chicagoans are more accustomed to getting advice from public television travel guru Rick Steves on where to go in Europe than on how to decrease crime on the South and West Sides.
But Steves — an advocate of marijuana legalization — waded into the matter Tuesday while in Chicago following an invite from a group of state legislators to share his thoughts on weed and answer a few questions.
“A lot of the crime that has evolved is because of the black market sales of marijuana,” state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin, a Democrat from the West Side, told Steves.
“Have you noticed in the state of Washington, where once marijuana was legalized, has the black market been eliminated or just decreased?” she asked.
Steves began his response by noting that he was 57 when, five years ago, his home state legalized marijuana.
“In those first 57 years of my life I had never been hugged by a big black Baptist minister,” he said. “And then after we legalized, I’ve been hugged by lots of big beautiful Baptist ministers so thankful that in our state we legalized marijuana.”
The reason, he said: a decrease in black market drug sales and illegal possession that have historically landed a disproportionate number of young black men in jail.
Steves also noted that while traveling Europe over the last 30 years, he’s encountered mayors of cities who, sometimes against political headwinds, insist on maintaining government-regulated marijuana sales to avoid street violence.
Black market marijuana has the effect of “empowering organized crime and gangs,” he said.
Steves testified before a joint House-Senate committee hearing at the Bilandic Building in the Loop, where he also warned against focusing too much on filling government coffers by taxing marijuana.
“The beauty of this, economically, is getting rid of the crime,” he said.
Over-taxation can lead marijuana users back to cheaper weed on the black market, he said.
Before his testimony, Steves held a news conference alongside two of the biggest marijuana legalization proponents in the Illinois legislature: Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago).
Both lawmakers have been promoting legislation that would make it legal for adults 21 and older to possess, grow, and purchase limited amounts of marijuana.
They plan to introduce an updated version of their bill in January but do not expect the legislation to come up for a vote during the election year of 2018.
Gauging political interest on the matter can be tricky.
Gov. Bruce Rauner instituted a medical marijuana pilot program that started doling out weed to patients in 2015. He also signed a bill last year that decriminalized the possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana, downgrading it a ticketable offense, subject to fines of $100 to $200.
But Rauner has not offered a decisive position on legalizing recreational marijuana.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates J.B. Pritzker and Daniel Biss support legalizing marijuana, while Chris Kennedy has said he is undecided.
Eight states have legalized marijuana — none in the Midwest.
But those states are all ballot initiative states, which means voters got to decide themselves to legalize pot, Steans pointed out; it was left to lawmakers to implement the policy.
Ballot initiatives are not an option in Illinois, so the matter has to be passed by legislators, which takes more time, but is headed in the right direction, Steans said.
“When you look at polling that was done in Illinois, two-thirds of people support legalization of adult use cannabis,” Steans said. “And that’s just going to continue to grow.”
On a sidenote, Steves, a Seattle area native, said that while in Chicago he loves soaking in the architecture. “My neck is sore from looking up…I love this city’s skyline.”