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Rauner uses veto power to alter pot bills

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Friday used his veto authority to pick at marijuana legislation that advocates eagerly hoped would pass.

Legislators wanted to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana with one bill and to extend the state’s medical marijuana program with another bill.

But the governor used what’s called an amendatory veto to change provisions in each measure.

Under the decriminalization bill sent to the governor, possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana would have been an offense punishable by a fine of no more than $125.

But Rauner lowered the threshold to 10 grams and increased the top fine — to $200.

Under current law, a person possessing 2.5 grams or more of marijuana could face arrest and jail time.

Rauner wrote in his veto message that he supports“ the fundamental purposes of this bill” but that any “change in how our State handles illegal drug possession, any change must be made carefully and incrementally.”

Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, who sponsored the decriminalization bill, said she was “frustrated” by the governor’s actions.

Does a person with 12 grams of marijuana make a community less safe than a man with 10 grams, she asked?

“I would argue, ‘no’,” Cassidy said.

“Every amount that you move, that’s somebody that’s going to get arrested instead of getting a ticket,” she said.

The goal of the bipartisan bill, she said, was to reduce jail and prison populations.

Cassidy said she needs to discuss the matter with other bill sponsors and those who helped craft the legislation before determining what she’ll do next.

“This was a thoroughly negotiated bill,” she said.

Chris Lindsey, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, was more pragmatic, saying the changes are still “a huge step forward.”

“This is still a big, big step in the right direction,” he said.

Rauner also altered a separate bill, shortening the extension to the four-year medical marijuana program.

Lawmakers had agreed on a measure that would start the four-year clock after the first cannabis dispensary is licensed.

But the governor said he’ll agree to an extension of just four months, ending the program in April 2018, accounting for the delay caused as Gov. Pat Quinn left office and Rauner took over, the governor wrote in his veto message.

Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, who championed the medical marijuana program, said he thinks the governor is being “shortsighted.”

“I also believe he is trying to make it look like he cares about these patients, but in fact a four-month extension doesn’t really do them much good,” Lang said.

Now Lang said he’ll have to start writing a new medical marijuana law — but, he added, he’ll have to do it without the information he hoped to gain using his extension bill and he’ll be “flying in the blind.”

“I have to prepare for the time the law will sunset,” he said. “The governor’s action, if sustained, will make prices go up for patients. A shorter program means higher prices.”

Lindsey said the medical marijuana program should have been given enough time to show legislators that it is a benefit to patients in the state.

“I’m concerned the gov has gone above and beyond the committee he created,” Lindsey said.

Dan Linn, who holds various advocacy roles and serves as the executive director of Illinois NORML, said patients and investors wanted “reassurance” that the program would have four full years to operate.

Entrepreneurs, especially, have invested millions into marijuana farms and their businesses and they hoped to be able to get a return.

And though Rauner wants to make this state business friendly, “It doesn’t seem like he’s that interested in making a better biz climate” for those in the medical marijuana business,” Linn said.