Marijuana bill proposed to Illinois legislators

By Emma Palatnik, Staff Writer

Phoenix Botanical does not fit the typical marijuana stereotype. The medical marijuana dispensary has a sterile and polished look. The items on the sales floor are displayed in glass boxes built into the walls. The checkout counters are almost identical to ones in doctors’ offices. The entire place is spotless.

Phoenix Botanical, located in Champaign, is one of two medical marijuana dispensaries in the Champaign-Urbana area. The other, NuMed, is in Urbana.

Medical marijuana is sold to help patients cope with conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, lupus, fibromyalgia, HIV and AIDS.

Phoenix Botanical is owned by Dan Linn, who is the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Illinois chapter.

In March 2017, Illinois legislators, Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, proposed the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Ali Nagib, assistant director of Illinois NORML, said Linn along with others from the organization worked for over 15 years to get these bills in legislation.

“Our mission as an organization, Illinois NORML, has always been about ending prohibition,” Nagib said. “And this bill really reflects a pretty significant piece of that. We’re very happy to see it introduced; we’re very supportive of it.”

The proposed bills legalize the growth, possession and purchase of restricted amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older.

The potential law allows residents 21 or older to possess roughly one ounce of marijuana, or 28 grams. Only five of those grams can be concentrated cannabis. It also allows citizens to grow up to five plants.

If the bills are passed, Illinois would issue licenses and regulate businesses to allow them to grow, process and sell marijuana. The state would also implement safety regulations for labeling and testing requirements.

In the Nov. 8, 2016, general election, an advisory referendum on legalizing marijuana in the City of Champaign township resulted in 72.05 percent in favor and 27.95 percent opposed.

The same advisory referendum was asked in Cunningham Township, which includes Urbana. There, 75.72 percent voted yes, and 24.28 percent voted no.

The referendum was posed to get a sense of how Champaign-Urbana residents feel about recreational marijuana.

Myrna Smith, southwest Champaign resident, said she voted in favor of the referendum even though she has never used marijuana and doesn’t ever anticipate using it.

“I get tired of people running other people’s lives,” Smith said. “I do have concerns about it being used while driving, when I’m on the road.”

According to proposed House Bill 2353, driving under the influence of cannabis will remain illegal. An individual is also prohibited from consuming cannabis while operating any devices used for transportation.

Similar to Colorado’s legislature that legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, Illinois would tax marijuana at $50 per ounce wholesale in addition to the 6.25 percent state sales tax.

Jim Eskew, southeast Urbana resident, also voted for legalizing marijuana on the referendum, and said he thinks the bill should pass statewide as it would help the state debt problem.

“I think it would generate a lot of tax revenue,” Eskew said. “And I don’t think it’s as harmful, as (much as) people think that it is.”

The Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group, estimates that Marijuana sales can generate anywhere from $350 million to $700 million per year in Illinois.

However, Mayor Deborah Feinen said she doesn’t think the tax revenue will greatly benefit Champaign.

“It looks like tax revenue going to the state, I didn’t see anything that looked like it was a city,” Feinen said. “We do have some city sales tax, but it wasn’t clear to me that we’d be receiving any of the revenue that they’re talking about generating.”

The bills, however, do plan to direct some of the revenue to schools and Feinen said that would be beneficial.

Another issue the legalization could pose is the health risks associated with smoking marijuana.

Bill Brown, Urbana ward 4 councilman, said he doesn’t think it is great if people start smoking large amounts of marijuana. He said it is unfair when people get caught with small amounts of marijuana, enter the court system and end up with the incident on their record — which can make it difficult to get jobs.

Instead of prohibition, Brown said he wants to take a public health approach toward the drug.

“I think that would actually reduce incidents and allow us to talk more honestly about the health effects rather than the legality of it,” Brown said. “I think that’s been pretty successful with cigarettes, so I think that’s probably a good approach to take with marijuana too.”

Underage drinking is a problem in Champaign, and if the bills eventually pass, underage marijuana use could become prevalent, Feinen said.

Feinen said the state needs to closely monitor and regulate marijuana similar to how alcohol is. She said the Champaign community needs to be cautious about abuse and underage use problems that could occur with recreational marijuana.

“How you would monitor that, I assume it would be very similar to the NTA, the notice to appear tickets that we give now for underage drinking,” Feinen said. “But I don’t know that for sure because we aren’t there yet.”

The black markets associated with illegal drug sales come along with violence.

Brown said he thinks the legalization will have the most impact on community safety and gun violence because it would reduce the motive to sell marijuana to make a living.

“It just goes on the chain; everybody that buys an ounce or two locally it probably came from a pound from some point,” Brown said. “And you get into some dangerous dealers who are dealing that around.”

The fine in Champaign for possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis is $340. However, in Urbana, the fine is $50 for possession of less than 30 grams.

Feinen said she thinks the bill is unlikely to pass and will have to be greatly modified before it does.

The state’s medical marijuana pilot program has provided qualifying Illinois residents with relief from their illnesses. Recreational marijuana could have similar benefits.

“This isn’t something that’s just limited to one party, or one particular segment of the population supporting it,” Nagib said. “This is a policy change that increasingly more and more Americans, and particularly Illinois residents, realize that needs to happen.”

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