Illinois Gears up for Marijuana Legalization

In 2014, it’s a well-known fact that most Americans support marijuana legalization in one form or another. Many Americans are dismayed by the fact that the possession of small amounts of pot can lead to a criminal record—a record which can make it difficult and sometimes downright impossible to get a job.

As public support for marijuana legalization grows, lawmakers across the nation are making cautious overtures, but the government on the whole remains obstinate. The US Drug Enforcement Agency insists that cannabis is just as dangerous—if not more so—than harder drugs like cocaine and opium. Seen as a dangerous “gateway drug,” the US government maintains that cannabis has no medicinal properties, although the Obama administration has been more liberal in this regard than most.

However, on the state level, change is most certainly in the wind. Cash-strapped states like Illinois looked on with envy as Colorado raked in more than $3 million in January 2014 alone. This kingly sum has some state legislators wondering: is loco weed so bad, after all? As of 2014, 25 states and the Washington, D.C., have seen legislation that would make medical marijuana easier to obtain for citizens and easier to run for cannapreneurs. A handful of states besides Colorado and Washington have proposed treating marijuana like alcohol. Not all of these bills have passed, of course, but Illinois lawmakers have seen enough to spur them into action.

Illinois has traditionally been hard on drug use. Marijuana possession? The state has the fifth highest arrest rate for that particular offense. Some wonder, then, whether the state will be able to pull off an about-face. Consider this: currently, if you’re caught with more than 30 grams of weed in the state, you’ll face a $25,000 fine and up to three years in prison. Partial motivation for making a change may stem from the fact that such prosecution is extremely expensive. According to economist Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University, marijuana prohibition costs the state and federal government a combined $20 billion per year. Critics of Illinois’s stiff marijuana laws—such as the Chicago Reader—also point out that African American citizens are arrested 15 times more often than Caucasians for possession.

State authorities such as Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, Gov. Pat Quinn, Sen. Iris Martinez and Rep. Lou Lang have all had a hand in pushing legislation that could change the way that the state deals with cannabis users. These bills include SB 2636, HB 4299, HB 4091 and HB 5708. The first of the four would allow parents of children with epilepsy to legally treat their children with CBD oil, a derivative of marijuana.

The other three bills all propose lessening penalties associated with the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Perhaps most importantly, these bills would render possession largely a civil offense; individuals ticketed for possession would avoid jail time. However, HB 4299 and HB 4091 still allow for possession to show up on a criminal record. Most of the bills stipulate that possession of not more than 30 grams would constitute a $100 fine. Regardless of which of these bills passes, it seems that the state is making a headlong effort to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis, which many believe to be a segue into full-on legalization and taxation of the drug.