Steans, McMahon spar over legal pot at Aurora town hall

A town hall Saturday about marijuana legalization featured a lively but respectful debate between state Sen. Heather Steans, a proponent of the measure, and Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon, who's against it.

The town hall, attended by about 30 people, is part of a series Steans has been attending regarding her push - in partnership with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy - to legalize marijuana in Illinois. Both are Chicago Democrats.

People 21 and over would be allowed to purchase and possess up to 30 grams, or an ounce, of marijuana and grow up to five plants at home, Steans said. Public consumption and driving under the influence of marijuana would remain illegal.

Under the proposal, which is still in flux, municipalities could impose a local tax on marijuana sales, possibly capped at 3 percent to ensure customers aren't driven to cheaper prices on the illegal market, Steans said. Municipalities could opt out of allowing marijuana sales, and employers and landlords could adopt a zero-tolerance policy, she said.

McMahon warned against the negative effects of legalized marijuana. He cited data from The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area about an increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths and hospitalizations in Colorado. Steans responded that the group's methodology is flawed and its findings have been criticized.

Trends across the country show some increases in marijuana DUIs but a decrease in marijuana-related fatalities, Steans said. Another provision in Illinois could be that people could lose their driver's licenses for possession of cannabis, Steans said.

McMahon said teen marijuana use has increased in states that have legalized adult use. Steans disagreed, saying there's been a decrease in all states except Alaska. "We share the goal that we don't want teens to use cannabis," she said.

Steans and McMahon agreed there is no reliable technology to test drivers impaired by marijuana, like there is for alcohol. Elgin and Aurora have trained police officers to identify signs of impairment, but smaller departments don't have the resources, McMahon said.

The most recent estimate by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute points to $525 million in tax revenue and nearly 24,000 new jobs from legal marijuana, Steans said. Illinois needs money, McMahon said, but he doesn't believe those estimates will pan out, which is what happened in Massachusetts, he said.

Some of the revenues from marijuana would go to training and equipment for law enforcement, Steans said. The money also would fund public education campaigns to prevent use by teens and pregnant women; increased funding for mental health and substance abuse providers; and grants for communities with high unemployment, violence and poverty, she said.

Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, most banks don't want to get involved and most transactions are in cash, which can lead to armed robberies, McMahon said. Steans said no cultivation centers or dispensaries in Illinois have been victims of armed robberies.

The proposal would promote local ownership of marijuana businesses and create opportunities for ownership by minorities, women and veterans, Steans said. "No state has gotten that right," she said.

Steans said she hopes to finalize a bill by late April.

Brian Anderson of Sugar Grove opposes legalization because marijuana can lead to harder drugs, like he said it did for him in his 20s. "I know the effects," he said. "Laziness, lethargy, low motivation ... You don't want that."

But Pat DelJonson of DeKalb, who favors legalization, said she tried marijuana as an adult and it wasn't a big deal. "People think it's the boogeyman until they try it, and then it's like, 'What was I thinking?'"

The town hall was hosted by state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego and state Sen. Linda Holmes of Aurora, both Democrats.

Holmes said she likely will support marijuana legalization. Kifowit said she's undecided and supports a resolution to slow down the process.

The proposal includes criminal record expungement for people who've been convicted of a cannabis-related misdemeanor or class 4 felony. Estimates show it would affect 10,000 people convicted in the last 10 years, mostly in Cook County, Steans said.

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