Cook County Votes Yes on Legalizing Marijuana – What's Next?

The people have spoken, and they want weed — the people of Cook County, anyways.

In response to a ballot initiative from the Cook County Board during Tuesday’s primary election, the second largest municipal county in the United States voted overwhelmingly in support of legalizing recreational marijuana at the state level: 63 percent said they would support full legalization.

So what's next? In short, nothing automatically.

The referendum was non-binding, which means voters shouldn’t expect any immediate action from their legislators in Springfield. But the huge amount of popular support behind the referendum may be writing on the wall for the state government’s current stance on marijuana.

While legislators decriminalized possessing small amounts of marijuana in 2016, having more than 10 grams is still a crime according to state law. The substance was first banned in Illinois in 1931 — more than five years before the federal government would pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, criminalizing the plant nationwide.

A lot has changed in the last century: 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, and another nine have legalized its recreational use. Across the country, support for legalization has never been higher: 64 percent of the Americans like the idea, compared to just 12 percent when Gallup first asked its respondents in 1969.

For the most part, support in Illinois has followed the national trends with a slight lag. The state legalized medical marijuana in 2013, a year after Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use.

Just a few years later, the movement is knocking on Springfield's front door. Last year, state Sen. Heather Steans introduced a bill to legalize marijuana use in Illinois and have it taxed and regulated “in a matter similar to alcohol.” It hasn’t come to a vote yet, but during committee hearings, witnesses testified that the move would cut down on crime from “black market” marijuana sales, as well as help the state shore of finances through sales taxes.

Marijuana legalization was also an issue over the course of the Democratic primary. For governor, each of the front running candidates — J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss and Chris Kennedy — supported the recreational use of marijuana, while all eight of the candidates for attorney general voiced their support by January.

In this victory speech Tuesday night, Pritzker, now the Democratic nominee, specifically pledged to legalize marijuana after the general election in November.

On the Republican side, Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he would veto legislation to legalize recreational marijuana if it arrived on his desk, while Republican nominee for attorney general Erika Harold said she believed the state should start “exploring” legalization last January.

At the same time, however, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 substance via the national Controlled Substances Act, meaning it is ranked as one of the federal government’s most dangerous drugs alongside cocaine, heroin and LSD.

Under former President Barack Obama's administration, the federal government’s approach to marijuana was softened via the “Cole Memo,” which provided prosecutors with a relaxed set of guidelines on enforcing the laws around marijuana. But with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the helm of President Donald Trump's Justice Department, that policy was rescinded last January.

Sessions called for a renewed legal surge against recreational drug use, arguing in another memo that “marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.” As a result, even if marijuana is legalized at the state level in Illinois, federal prosecutors may still be able to go after anyone who partakes in the Land of Lincoln and elsewhere.

But with public support so staunchly in favor of marijuana, the stakes surrounding its legalization in the state are high. By some estimates, taxing recreational marijuana could bring the state $350 million in revenue every year, while Colorado — the first state to legalize recreational marijuana — has made half a billion in revenue since 2014.

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