Chicago Voters Will Soon Tell Illinois Lawmakers If They Favor Legalizing Adult-Use Cannabis

An advisory measure before voters in the most populous county in Illinois is intended to signal public support for a legalization bill in the Legislature.
Chicago Voters Will Soon Tell Illinois Lawmakers If They Favor Legalizing Adult-Use Cannabis
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The first step in getting recreational marijuana legal in the state of Illinois may happen next March in Cook County.

An advisory referendum asking voters whether adult-use cannabis should be legal will be placed on the March 20 primary ballot. But before marijuana advocates and entrepreneurs become too excited about this potentially huge market, it’s important to note the “advisory” part.

The vote is not binding and won't change current law, but it is part of a strategy by supporters of state-wide legalization. By March, the state Legislature will be in session with a bill from state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy to create a legal adult-use marijuana system in Illinois. Supporters believea vote in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana from the state’s biggest county would send a clear signal to lawmakers that the state should legalize cannabis.

Certainly, millions will get the chance to make their voice heard. Cook County, which includes Chicago, is the second-most populous county in the entire country with more than 5.2 million residents.

Related: Hawaii Sees Legalizing Adult Use Marijuana As Huge Boon to Island Economy

Illinois' fiscal crisis.

If the state of Illinois’ finances were those of an individual or business, that person or business would likely file for bankruptcy. The state’s unpaid bills reached $14 billion this year.

Unlike other politicians, both Steans and Cassidy have no qualms about saying that legalizing marijuana in Illinois is about money. The two believe millions could come into state coffers through taxes and fees. That’s a relative drop in the bucket, but when you owe billions, every little bit helps.

There are, of course, other good reasons. Newly elected New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who hopes to legalize marijuana in that state, has made it an issue about fairness. He points out that a disproportionate number of minorities end up jailed over marijuana possession charges.

Related: Massachusetts May Leap Ahead on Cannabis Cafes

Members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, who unanimously voted to put the measure on the ballot, voiced those same arguments. Board President Toni Preckwinkle said current marijuana law results in minorities spending time in jail because they cannot afford bail money and also hurts their chances of finding a job, according to the Chicago Tribune.

What voters will decide.

Recreational marijuana is already legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Voters in Maine also approved legal recreational cannabis, but the Republican governor vetoed the bill that would have created the state-regulated system.

The exact language of the advisory referendum as approved by Cook County commissioners reads: “Shall the state of Illinois legalize the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?”

Even Republican commissioner Sean Morrison, who has not favored legalization, voted to put the referendum on the ballot, saying, “I think it should go before the public, and we’ll see what they tell us.”

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