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EDITORIAL: Illinois, there are red flags on legalizing recreational pot

At 12:01 a.m. Thursday, Michigan turned green and became the 10th state in the nation to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use.

Marijuana cigarettes. | Adobe Stock Photo

We’ve said before that there’s no need to rush to legalize recreational marijuana, and it bears repeating now.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has promised to move swiftly on legalization. This Editorial Board remains skeptical.  

We’re not necessarily opposed to legalization. But we want to see more definitive answers to pressing questions about the impact on public health, public safety and more before we’re convinced that any potential benefits outweigh the risks.

EDITORIAL

Consider this new big red flag, as reported in the Washington Post: A recent study found that motor vehicle crashes increased by 6 percent in four states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Nevada — that have legalized recreational pot, compared with four neighboring states that have not.

“What we’re seeing is a definite increase in crash risk that is associated with the legalized recreational use of marijuana,” said David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, which conducted the study.

“Associated with” definitely calls for more research. As Harkey acknowledged, the study only shows a correlation, not a direct link, between legal pot and higher crash risk.

Keep this in mind, though: IIHS did the same study the previous year, in three of the same four states, and came to the same conclusion.  Add in the exhaustive, 468-page study by the National Academy of Medicine that, among other disturbing findings, concluded that cannabis use does, indeed, increase the risk of fatal car accidents, as the New Yorker reported.

Balance that risk against the progress Illinois has made in reducing traffic fatalities, which declined last year after rising significantly every year from 2015 through 2017.

Researchers have also found another potential land mine: the possibility that regular marijuana use causes mental health problems. We’re not talking 1930s “Reefer Madness” hysteria, either.

According to the National Academy of Medicine report, as author and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson pointed out in a recent Times op-ed, “cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk.”  

We haven’t even gotten yet to the question of equity raised by some African-American legislators: how to make sure that minority communities hard hit by the war on drugs benefit from a legal marijuana industry.

“If we don’t do that right, we’ve failed,” state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, who’s been working on a potential legalization bill, told us. “We need restoration of [clean] records as close to automatic as possible, and making sure we create opportunities to have minorities become part of the industry that’s heavily white and male now.”

Cassidy believes Illinois can handle legalization properly, with adequate regulation and sensible taxation. Prohibition simply hasn’t worked, she said.

She made another critical point: “States that have gone about this as a revenue-generator are going about it wrong.”

Exactly. Our dire need for more money should not be the driving force. Public health and safety must be paramount.

Unfortunately, too many candidates for public office, eager to solve the local and state fiscal crises, hear the words “legal pot” and become math-averse. They forget that even the rosiest revenue estimates for legalized marijuana pale in comparison to the scale of pension debt looming, not to mention the laundry list of other budget needs. As Cassidy puts it, “the money’s already been spent 10 times over.”

Let’s not forget what happened with video gambling, which made our fiscal problems worse because of unfunded regulatory and social costs, according to an investigation by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ.  

More town hall meetings on legal pot are scheduled. In Chicago, you can attend one at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport.

Illinois, don’t rush to be a pioneer.

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