With the introduction of Illinois Senate Bill 316 and Illinois House Bill 2353 that would legalize recreational cannabis, the question is not if, but when will it happen? Adults over 21 would be able to buy up to 28 grams of cannabis. It would be treated like alcohol in the way it is sold and taxed. Governor Rauner has proven to be no friend of the cannabis industry, so we may need to wait until after the election of 2018 when a new governor is elected. That is my hope!
How would legal recreational cannabis impact our state? Of course, we will only know definitively, once that happens. However, based on the experiences of states like Colorado, Washington and California, where medical and recreational cannabis are legal, we can speculate on its impact.
Marijuana arrests would go way down, although sadly, the racial disparities would remain. More than likely, this would not affect those who are currently incarcerated for non-violent, simple possession of cannabis. As research shows, even though just as many whites use cannabis as people of color (POC), minority citizens are arrested, charged and imprisoned at a disproportionately higher rate. Considering the political climate of Trump America, that disparity would most likely be even more pronounced.
All the man power and resources currently used for these arrests would no longer be necessary. It would save millions of dollars, prevent the criminalization of thousands of people and free up law enforcement officers to address serious crimes. American police officers typically arrest more people for cannabis use than for all violent crimes combined.
For bankrupt Illinois, the increase of tax revenues would be economically smart. The projected amount is $349 to $699 million in new tax revenue per year, not including licensing and other fees. 30% of the proceeds would fund schools, 10% would go to treatment programs, 10% for public safety campaigns and 50% to a general fund. In order to get Illinois lawmakers on board, the experts at Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) were consulted to help draw up the bills. Recreational cannabis will be taxed, regulated, tested, labelled and licensed in a way that is very similar to Illinois medical cannabis. The good news is that it allows for home grow; up to 5 plants per household. They must be grown in a secure location, not visible to passing traffic and away from minors.
Opponents to recreational cannabis legalization assume that traffic fatalities will increase. This has been proven to be false. As has been documented extensively, alcohol usage is much more likely to cause serious impairment and traffic deaths than cannabis. In states where medical cannabis is legal, usage amongst teenagers is down and does not increase when recreational cannabis is legalized. Prohibition has been shown to be a dismal failure.
The high prices that medical cannabis dispensaries currently charge would have to decrease in order to be competitive with recreational cannabis sellers. That would help the medical cannabis community. Many patients are unable to afford the high prices of their medicine. It would also affect the cannabis black market by rendering the product as less desirable. You never know exactly what you are getting when you buy on the black market. Consumers will get a more dependable and safer product with recreational legalization. Cannabis will be tested for potency, and for pesticides and contaminants.
The black market will never entirely disappear. People will still use it to make purchases when recreational dispensaries are closed, and if they object to paying taxes on recreational cannabis. Most major drug dealers sell hard core drugs like heroin, cocaine, fentanyl and speed, in addition to cannabis. Those states where medical cannabis is legal have consistently seen a decrease in harder drug consumption. Heroin is so cheap these days that it costs less than cannabis. Theoretically, a decrease in the number of hard drug dealers will decrease the violence that typically accompanies it.
In my research for this article, I asked my Facebook friends if they thought POC who are currently selling cannabis on the black market would benefit from its legalization. The POC who responded were in agreement that POC would be pushed out of the legal recreational industry by rich, white, male business people who dominate the entire industry. Only 3% of investors in the medical cannabis industry are POC. Access to large amounts of capital, a clean record and social connections are crucial to succeed in the cannabis industry. Then, there is the stigma in minority communities due to the high cannabis arrest rate of their members. This makes POC fearful of entering the industry, if they can even overcome the barriers of entry.
I asked a friend who has worked in the Illinois medical cannabis industry to weigh in on the subject.
Unless there are good, common sense, strict regulations around a new recreational cannabis industry, I do not have faith that owners will work to include POC in capitalizing on it. Part of the revenue generated by the industry would allow them to help enrich their communities, go towards job training and community development.
It could regenerate communities with high crime rates and few job opportunities. If POC are not encouraged to join the recreational industry, they may very well move into or stay in dealing harder drugs. Legalization should lead to the exoneration of those with criminal records for simple possession of cannabis. This would allow them much easier access into the job market. While it is likely that the passage of recreational legalization will take months, perhaps even years, it does look like it will happen. It will be a win-win for the state of Illinois.