Holmes: Facts vs. fear in legalization debate

  • State Sen. Linda Holmes

    State Sen. Linda Holmes

 
By State Sen. Linda Holmes
Guest columnist

The debate over legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis features facts on one side and fear on the other. Let's start with the facts:

Legalization has clear public support. A poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University conducted earlier this year found that 66 percent of Illinoisans favor "the legalization of recreational marijuana if taxed and regulated like alcohol." This reflects the overall support shown in national polls.

A 2018 nonbinding referendum showed that 63 percent of Cook County voters favor legalization. (Incidentally, the referendum received a 62 percent "yes' vote in Rep. Moylan's district.)

This support reflects common sense. Voters know prohibition hasn't worked. They understand that cannabis use is mainstream and widespread -- and that prohibition wastes valuable public resources and prevents police from focusing on more important things. They understand the irrationality of making cannabis illegal while allowing alcohol, which is more dangerous, to flow freely.

Opponents of legalization have resorted to fearmongering to make their point; the research does not back them up. They say cannabis is a "gateway" drug that leads to harder drugs, but statistics prove that people who try cannabis never move onto other drugs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cannabis use by 9th -- 12th graders has declined nationwide from 23.1% to 19.8% between 2011 and 2017, even as nine states and D.C. have legalized recreational adult use of cannabis. In most states where cannabis for adults is now legal, teen usage has dropped. For example:

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• In Colorado, usage among 9th to 12th graders dropped from 22% to 19.4% between 2011-2017.

• In Washington, D.C., usage among 12- to 17-year-olds dropped from 10.6% to 8.3% between 2013 and 2017.

• In Washington state, usage among 8th graders dropped from 9.5% to 6.4% between 2010 and 2016; among 10th graders, usage dropped from 20% to 17.2%, and among 12th graders there was no change.

• In Oregon, usage among 8th graders dropped from 9.7% to 6.7%.

The case for legalization from a public safety perspective is equally clear. Just as prohibition didn't stop alcohol consumption and helped fuel organized crime, the current cannabis policies have empowered generations of criminals while doing nothing to reduce usage. Under a safe, legal and comprehensive regulatory system, we can keep cannabis away from kids, just as we do alcohol or cigarettes, and we can put legions of criminals out of business at the same time.

We will ban sales to anyone under 21, impose strict requirements on packaging and labeling, and use a portion of the revenues to fund education and training programs for police so they can enforce driving laws that prohibit driving under the influence of cannabis.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

From a social justice perspective, legalization is long past due. Under current drug policy, African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested on charges of cannabis possession than whites, even though usage is similar among the two groups.

Untold numbers of people have cannabis-related arrests on their records that hinder their ability to get a job. Taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year prosecuting, jailing and incarcerating cannabis law violators while more serious criminals go free.

And finally, Illinois needs the money. Revenue estimates from cannabis run as high as $600 million annually. In addition to supporting the general fund, revenues will pay for community reinvestment programs, mental health and substance abuse programs, law enforcement, and efforts to help the state honor unpaid bills.

It will also create thousands of new jobs and small businesses in the very same communities that today endure high crime due to the illegal distribution of cannabis.

After four years of inaction, Springfield is finally having serious conversations about fixing our financial problems, reforming the criminal justice system, and improving safety for people of all ages. Legalizing cannabis makes inroads in all three areas.

State Sen. Linda Holmes is a Democrat from Aurora.

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