Local leaders and cannabis advocates say their plans to legalize recreational marijuana use here won’t be impacted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions rollback of an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legal pot to flourish in other states.
The rollback announced Thursday means federal prosecutors will be able to decide what to do when state rules collide with federal drug laws.
Illinois has decriminalized possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana, and medicinal marijuana is legal. Several Democratic candidates for governor have called for legalizing marijuana for recreational use but Gov. Bruce Rauner has not.
State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, have introduced legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana use in Illinois. And they have no plans of backing down.
“Consumers already have easy access to marijuana and rolling back this guidance is short sighted,” said Steans, adding that Sessions’ move may drive more people to buying marijuana on the black market.
Cook County residents will still get to weigh in on whether they want to legalize recreational marijuana when they cast their ballot for the March 20 primary. Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, who proposed to have the question on the ballot, said the decision was an “aggressive march backward in time” that ignores the “failure” of the war on drugs.
“Today’s announcement hangs the specter of federal intervention over emerging market places, mainly in states that have some form of legal cannabis,” Fritchey said. “I can’t see the logic in throwing the industry up for grabs.”
Sessions’ policy will override a 2013 memo, called the Cole memo, that said the federal government would not stand in the way of states that legalize the drug. In his statement Thursday, Sessions called the memo “unnecessary.”
While Sessions has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows President Donald Trump’s top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, the changes to pot policy reflect his own concerns. As a former federal prosecutor, Sessions tried cases at the height of the drug war in Mobile, Alabama. Trump’s personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown, but as a candidate he supported leaving the issue up to the states.
Pot advocates argue that legalizing the drug eliminates the need for a black market and would likely reduce violence, since criminals would no longer control the marijuana trade.
Charlie Bachtell, the CEO of the Chicago-based medical cannabis company Cresco Labs, said the decision would not change the perspective of the industry, but may cause confusion going forward.
“The memo was just guidance, and the rollback is little more than removal of that guidance,” Bachtell said. “An unfortunate ripple effect of this is is how it may be interpreted by people. It would be terrible for someone with one of the 41 medical conditions in Illinois to not seek treatment because they think they’re doing something illegal.”
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said the decision was “disappointing, but not surprising.”
“They have a lot of work on their hands with opioids, so it’s not in the best interest of public safety to close or go after legal cannabis places,” Smith said. “This issue is non-partisan and now its barely controversial because it has support on both sides of the aisle.”