Debates over allowing legal cannabis stores show new law is working

  • Heather Steans

    Heather Steans

By Sen. Heather Steans
Guest columnist
Updated 10/22/2019 8:14 AM

Is democracy a bad thing?

As co-authors of the Illinois law legalizing cannabis use on Jan. 1, 2020, I along with Sen. Toi Hutchinson and Reps. Kelly Cassidy and Jehan Gordon-Booth don't think so. That's why we enabled jurisdictions across Illinois to determine for themselves whether they would allow the establishment of cannabis businesses within their boundaries.


There have been many recent news stories about various municipalities struggling with this decision. In some cases, city or town councils have voted against allowing legal cannabis sales. In others, council members have voted to allow such sales -- or, at least, to study them. Some councils have even considered putting it to a referendum, so the residents of their communities can vote directly on the question.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently proposed the creation of seven zones across the city that would each be allowed seven initial sites for legal cannabis sales. She excluded sales in the downtown area, expressing her concern that such sites might affect its "family friendly" nature. Some downtown aldermen and business leaders have pushed back, arguing that such an exclusion would forgo the greatest revenue opportunities for the city. We assume that these differences will be worked out eventually through negotiation and compromise -- which is how democracy is supposed to work.

These debates over whether and where to sell legal cannabis show that the law is working as its supporters intended, giving cities, towns and suburbs across our state the chance to opt in or opt out. Our intent was not to impose cannabis dispensaries on every community -- just as our law doesn't condone the use of cannabis. It simply recognizes that the alternative of prohibition doesn't work. Instead, it has resulted in ruined lives and crime-ridden neighborhoods, disproportionately affecting people and communities of color.

Our goal in passing a law for legalization was to rectify these inequities and mitigate the harm inflicted through years of prohibition. As much as possible, the law leaves decisions about where to put the stores to local governments that know their residents and communities best. And by allowing municipalities to place a local tax of up to 3 percent on legal cannabis sales, we provided them with a tool for addressing high property taxes and underfunded public pensions -- if they choose to use it.

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So the headlines and debates about where to allow legal cannabis businesses don't bother us. That's how the new law is supposed to work. What does bother us is the specious arguments being trotted out by some opponents of local stores about the potential impact of legal cannabis sales. These are the same, tired arguments that have been used to defend a failed cannabis policy for the past 50 years:

• These stores will mean our kids will have greater access to cannabis. False. In fact, they will have exactly the opposite effect by restricting sales to only those 21 and over. Any store that violates these rules will lose its license -- something that's never happened to the unregulated pot-dealer on the corner.

• The cannabis purchased in these stores will be a gateway to other drugs. False. These stores will sell only cannabis, whose provenance and purity will be closely regulated. Again, this isn't the case with pot bought from street-corner sellers, who are far more likely to adulterate their merchandise or "up-sell" their customers to more dangerous drugs.

• Police won't be able to tell when drivers are too high to drive. False. Current DUI laws will apply to cannabis just as they do to alcohol. Moreover, a significant portion of the revenue from legal sales is being directed to law enforcement to, among other things, help train them in detecting and preventing impaired driving. And studies of states like Colorado and Washington that have had legal cannabis for years show no significant increase in impaired driving or accidents.

Polls have shown consistently that two-thirds of Illinoisans recognize that cannabis prohibition hasn't worked and it is time to change course. As a result, cities and towns across our state are now debating how best to implement those needed changes through an open and democratic process. That's our best chance for progress, equity and success.

State Sen. Heather Steans is a Democrat from Chicago. Also contributing to this letter were Democrats Sen. Toi Hutchinson, of Olympia Fields, and Reps. Kelly Cassidy, of Chicago, and Jehan Gordon-Booth, of Peoria.

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