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Effort to legalize marijuana in Illinois coming together

Preliminary plan would expand classes of licenses.

By Greg Bishop
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — A plan to legalize cannabis for adult use in Illinois is starting to come together in Springfield even as some lawmakers push for a slower, more cautious approach to legalize.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, has Senate Bill 7. She said with 800,000 monthly marijuana users, and only 35,000 card holders for the state’s medical program, it’s clear prohibition doesn’t work and it’s time to try a taxed and regulated industry.

The bill she filed doesn’t have anything substantive, but passed out of committee Wednesday with a promise that it be brought back with an amendment with updated proposals – an effort meant to beat a looming deadline for bills to get out of committee.

State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, voted against moving the bill out of committee because the bill lacked specifics.

“I think that we’ll be probably out of an abundance of caution be voting no on the shell bill but we appreciate very much the sponsor’s assurance that there will be as much time afforded as is necessary to ask questions and delve into an issue that has serious concerns with many of us,” Righter said.

Steans said she and other stakeholders are looking to allow people 21 and older to have a little more than an ounce at a time. They are also considering proposals to add three new licenses to the state’s existing medical marijuana program’s cultivation and dispensary licenses.

“So keeping the cultivation centers in place, but adding a craft grow license for a smaller footprint that could be loaded more flexible and have smaller capital entry requirements, a processing license, a transportation license and then the dispensary license,” Steans said.

A state-regulated cannabis marketplace in Illinois would open up potentially lucrative business opportunities for growers, sellers and other ancillary businesses.

The issue of what kinds of licenses, and how many should be made available has been a matter of debate.

The Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois has said the state’s existing dispensary and cultivation centers would be able to handle any increase in demand in the first two years of legalization. But a demand study from the Illinois Chapter of NORML found the state would need hundreds of additional dispensaries and cultivation centers to meet the demand to ensure those using it for medical reasons would still have access to the product.

Lawmakers have also talked about making sure there’s diversity among those who have legal pot industry licenses, including efforts to get communities and groups that have been most affected by the prohibition of the drug involved in the legal industry.

“We are really hoping to create more avenues of entry into the industry for a much more diverse set of players to participate,” Steans said.

Lawmakers are still discussing whether the bill will allow adults to grow their own cannabis at home, Steans said. Law enforcement groups have raised concerns about a possible provision to allow five plants per household.

“There is discussion about maybe limiting that to just medical patients, which certainly may be an easier way of enforcing it,” Steans said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker campaigned on legalizing marijuana and included revenue from selling licenses in his budget proposal. Pritzker is counting on $171 million in revenue from cannabis licensing fees. But not everyone is on board.

State Rep. Marty Moylan, D-Des Plaines, has a resolution with 59 co-sponsors urging lawmakers to slow down.

“We’re getting all the facts, the real facts, from the scientist and chemists and doctors in Colorado and that’s what we want the residents of Illinois to know before they make any kind of decision,” Moylan said. “We want to slow it down because we want to get all the facts out. They are rushing this bill through.”

Moylan said his chief concerns are the potency of cannabis, the psychological effects it has on people and other issues with the possibility of youth getting their hands on it.

Steans said legalizing it and regulating cannabis for adult use will help to keep it out of the hands of young people.

“Teens’ developing brains should not have access to cannabis and we think we can actually reduce that access and have a safer product on the streets by having a tax and regulated approach, not a prohibition approach,” Steans said.

Steans said she wants to pass her measure before the end of May and to have the marketplace open for consumers by early 2020.

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