Photo by Dermot Connolly
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-14th, at right) responds to audience questions following a presentation she gave on Monday during a town hall meeting at the Oak Lawn Library about her efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Illinois. The event was hosted by state Rep. Fran Hurley (D-35th), standing, from left, state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) and state Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th), who read the submitted questions.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-14th) believes marijuana use should be legalized in Illinois for adults ages 21 and over.
"Prohibition has not worked," Cassidy said during a town hall meeting held Monday evening before about 150 people at the Oak Lawn Library. “The difference between what you can get legally, and what you get in a plastic bag on the street is night and day. The goal is to undercut the cost of what is available on the street, so you can’t tax it too much.”
Cassidy, who is co-sponsoring a bill with state Sen. Heather Steans (D-7th), said SB316/HB2352 would tax and regulate marijuana similar to what is currently done for alcohol and tobacco.
The forum was sponsored by state Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th), state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) and state Rep. Fran Hurley (D-36th). Many residents who attended the session were open to the legalization of marijuana for adults.
However, there were many other residents in attendance who were wary of the long-term impact of marijuana use.
“We’re just here to learn. But we’re very skeptical about it,” said Oak Lawn resident Chris Kupscuk, who was there with her husband, Peter.
“I don’t understand its popularity. I tried it once in high school and I didn’t like it,” she added.
“We still have some questions. But it just seems like it is going to happen,” said Peter Kupscuk.
Hurley pointed out that in the non-binding Cook County referendum on legalizing marijuana that was on the March 20 primary elections, Orland Township was 54 percent in favor, 55.6 in Palos Township, and 62 percent in Worth Township. Her district also includes Chicago’s 19th Ward, where she lives, as well as the 18th and 21st wards. Hurley said 67 percent of 19th Ward voters approved legalizing marijuana, as did 66 percent in the other two wards.
“But everyone doesn’t vote. That just means that a majority of the voters were in favor of it,” Hurley said afterward, noting that voter turnout was about 29 percent.
Cassidy cited statistics showing that 750,000 Illinoisans have admitting being regular users, and 22 million nationwide. She said that in all the states that have legalized marijuana, street sales of the drug have dropped.
She added that the industry will also raise revenue through the creation of a variety of jobs related to the production of edible marijuana items, among other things.
Cassidy mentioned that the tax revenue could go toward education, healthcare related to drug abuse, as a well as even paying down the pension debt.
“How can we trust you that the revenue will go where you say it will?” asked one audience member, citing what happened to the lottery funds going into the general fund rather than education.
The wording of the legislation is still being worked on, Cassidy said, and the feedback from town halls and public hearings is valuable.
“Legalization is moving quickly across the country. It could be approved here as early as next spring, (after the gubernatorial election)” said Cassidy. “We probably have enough votes to pass it now, but the governor is against it and we don’t have enough votes to override a veto."
Cassidy said that legislative hearings will be held before any vote. She then answered questions submitted by audience members and read out by Cunningham, Kelly and Hurley.
Cunningham pointed out that while Colorado and many of the other states that have legalized marijuana in recent years did so through referendums, but in Illinois, laws must be changed through the legislative process.
Cassidy explained that under the bill, Illinois residents 21 and over would be allowed to purchase or possess 28 grams (1 ounce) of marijuana.
“That amount is per purchase. So, if you kept buying it, and kept it with you, you could still have a problem if you were stopped by police,” she said, responding to an audience question.
Public use of it would still be prohibited, she noted, under the legislation as it is written now.
The marijuana sold legally would largely come from grow houses, just as medicinal marijuana is now. But households could also grow as many as five marijuana plants for their own use.
“This is already an incredibly highly regulated industry,” said Cassidy, referring to the medicinal marijuana industry. It would be sold in dispensaries, like the ones for medical marijuana already in Worth, Justice, and on the Southwest Side of Chicago.
She said municipalities, employers and landlords would still be able to restrict or prohibit use or possession of marijuana.
“Municipalities can opt out of allowing marijuana possession entirely. But then they would also wouldn’t get any of the tax revenue it generates,” Cassidy said.
“I would challenge a lot of things that were said today,” said Dr. Ken Yerkes, of Oak Lawn, who is running as a Republican write-in candidate in the 3rd Congressional District in November.
Yerkes said that while he is in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, he questions a lot of the statistics cited during the presentation.
“There is a DARE program for children, teaching them to avoid drugs. Some of the tax revenue should go toward a DARE program for adults, too,” he said.
Cunningham said he is “leaning toward” supporting legalization but is waiting for the final wording of the proposed legislation.
“I think about Prohibition, and how that didn’t work. But a lot will depend on the final wording of the bill, whether or not I support the bill. We want to hear from you,” said Cunningham, urging audience members to contact the three offices and share their views on the subject.
When asked for a show of hands from audience members when asked if they supported legalization, most hands shot up.
Burke said she was pleased with the turnout.
“The event went well; the crowd was larger than I thought it would be and more of a mix of ages than I thought there would be. We don't usually get many young people at our town halls so I am glad we could present information on a topic that is of interest to many young people.
“I learned a lot from the presentation and I'd like to review the amended bill when it's filed before making a commitment,” Burke added.