'This isn't a slam dunk': Why legalizing pot could test Pritzker's clout

A vote on legalizing recreational marijuana could be Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker's first clout test with his own party.

Despite Democrats controlling the Illinois House, Senate and governorship, there's not unanimity on this issue, Democratic state Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines said.

"This isn't a slam dunk," said Moylan, who's concerned selling marijuana in stores could escalate crime, crashes and addiction rates. "The process should be slowed ... I don't appreciate them trying to steamroll this."

Pritzker made no secret of his support for lifting the prohibition during the fall campaign. He won the Nov. 6 election by a nearly 16 percent margin against Gov. Bruce Rauner, who opposes recreational use.

"I don't know if it will be easy" to pass, Pritzker told the Daily Herald Dec. 7. But "I favor it and I think the majority of the people in the state of Illinois favor it."

Current laws have caused discrimination and disproportionately imprisoned minorities for marijuana offenses, said Pritzker, who contends legalization can be done safely and generate tax revenue.

Illinois has allowed medical marijuana since 2014, and in 2017 Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy introduced legislation to decriminalize recreational use.

The plan conceptually would allow Illinois residents age 21 and older to buy one ounce of marijuana at a time from a licensed shop and grow up to five plants.

The state sales tax of 6.25 percent could apply to purchases, and municipalities would have the final say on whether businesses could operate in their towns.

Far from steamrolling, "nothing has been more deliberately walked through than this," Cassidy said, citing four hearings, six town halls and multiple stakeholder meetings across the state.

Moylan intends to hold his own community forum at 7 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Des Plaines Public Library.

"We need more information," Moylan said. He thinks Democrats who won in historically Republican districts will share his views. Several suburban Democrats who responded to requests for comment are noncommittal.

While many Republicans oppose legalization, that's not monolithic, either. Republican state Rep. Allan Skillicorn of East Dundee, for example, co-sponsored Cassidy's bill and told the Daily Herald in March it could be an economic boon.

Democratic state Sen. Christine Castro of Elgin said she wants details before making a decision.

"I'm generally supportive of legalizing marijuana but I do want to see the proposal and what it does first," she said.

Democratic state Rep. Terra Costa Howard of Glen Ellyn also wants to see the bill. "I will be hosting forums for my district at the appropriate times and then will take my vote based on my district position," said Howard, who defeated conservative Republican Peter Breen in the Nov. 6 election.

Democratic state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines said she understands arguments on both sides. "If I had to vote today - I'd vote present because I'm not done with the research," she said.

State's attorneys Robert Berlin in DuPage County, Joe McMahon in Kane County and Patrick Kenneally in McHenry County, all Republicans, oppose legalization.

"It has a significant potential to increase traffic-related deaths," Kenneally said.

Cassidy contends the new law would take marijuana sales off the streets, reducing violence.

"People can buy from licensed vendors, not street dealers linked to gangs," she said.

Political expert Bill Morris, a former state senator from Grayslake, thinks legalization will "be a heavy lift" for the rookie governor.

If it's sold as a source of new income for the state, "some members may overcome their other concerns," he said.

Research on the effects of the drug in states like Colorado, which allowed retail sales of recreational marijuana in 2014, is relatively new and has produced conflicting information.

A 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health found little difference in the fatal car crash rate in Colorado and Washington compared to states where the drug is prohibited.

Yet, AAA Traffic Safety Foundation research found the percentage of drivers in fatal crashes who recently used marijuana spiked to 17 percent from 8 percent from 2013 to 2014, the motorist advocacy group reported.

Of course, more people were using marijuana in 2014, after it became legal.

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People wait in line outside the Cannabis Club on Main Street in downtown Breckenridge, Colorado, for the first legal recreational marijuana sales on Jan. 1, 2014. Associated Press
J.B. Pritzker
Marty Moylan
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