The Question Isn't If Illinois Voters Want Cannabis, It's How Best to Get It

Photo Credit: John O'Connor/AP/Shutterstock
May 7, 2019

By Chloe Aiello

The people of Illinois have spoken ー and they want cannabis. Now it's just a question of how best to go about legalizing, Ali Nagib, assistant director of marijuana advocacy group Illinois NORML, told Cheddar.

"Respected polling organizations in the state have consistently polled two-to-one margins for several years for adult use. And so the question isn't, 'Do the people support it?' The question is, 'What's the best way forward?' I think legislators will keep working on this here in Illinois," Nagib said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced over the weekend he reached an agreement with lawmakers to legalize recreational marijuana, beginning next year, Associated Press reported. His plan permits adults 21 and older to purchase cannabis, enables Illinois residents to posses up to 30 grams of marijuana, and also contains some provisions for automatic expungement of cannabis-related convictions. Nagib said the deal would go far to open up the market to legitimate businesses.

"This would be a big deal in terms of changing our policies to follow states like Colorado, Washington, California, that we've seen move forward ending prohibition, not only stopping the arrests, as we've done significantly in Illinois with our decriminalization laws, but to open up the marketplace," he said, adding that much of the cannabis in Illinois is still purchased on the black market.

And while polling may overwhelmingly favor legalization in the Prairie State, the fact that it has an incredibly restrictive citizen ballot initiative process may pose a bit of a problem. Only Vermont has so far managed to legalize cannabis through the legislative process, and it still doesn't have a functioning commercial cannabis market. In New Jersey, which attempted legislative legalization earlier this year, a package of bills stalled for lack of support in the state's Senate.

"The ballot initiative process definitely has its advantages," Nagib said. "The legislative process as we've seen here can definitely get bogged down."

And, like in New Jersey, stakeholders share some common concerns, including ensuring social justice and equity issues are accounted for in a potential bill and safeguarding for public health and safety. Still, Nagib said he felt confident that stakeholders will eventually come together to get legislation passed, but whether it happens before Illinois' May 31 deadline or sometime later "remains to be seen."

As for the rest of the country, Nagib said cannabis' success on the state level could lead to broader changes nationwide.

"Towns and states, cities, are the laboratories of democracy in our federalist system. They've been the ones leading the way for 20 plus years on cannabis reform," Nagib said.