Illinois' new marijuana law is reason to hope America can eventually get legalization right

It's time to embrace the end of the prohibition era, rather than holding on to old attitudes about weed that harm our communities.
Image: Chicago weed sales, cannabis, marijuana, US-LIFESTYLE-CANNABIS-COURT
Customers outside Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary in Chicago on Jan. 1, 2020, the first day recreational marijuana became legal in Illinois. Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP - Getty Images
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By Simon Moya-Smith

My grandfather Ernie, who’s 83, recently said to me, “Sometimes it takes the death of a generation to bury the backward way they think with them.” Perhaps that’s what it’ll take to bury the boomer attitude toward marijuana. I hope not — and the experience with legalization in Illinois gives me a little more reason to hope.

On New Year’s Eve, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, pardoned more than 11,000 low-level marijuana convictions — the first, he said, of thousands to come — as a key part of the state’s law legalizing marijuana for recreational use, which went into effect Jan. 1 for adults 21 and older.

Lines of bundled bud enthusiasts stretched around sidewalks and wrapped around buildings on New Year's Day, every one of them waiting for the doors to fly open. The scene looked like a hoard of diehard fans waiting to buy the first tickets to a concert.

And those bundled many were eager to spend their hard-earned dough the legal way, much sooner than anyone expected, according to reports.

On Day One alone, dispensaries sold a collective $3,176,256.71, flooding the state with more tax revenue than it anticipated. By the end of the first week of operation, dispensaries had raked in nearly $11 million. The demand for legal weed was so high — pun intended — that many of the 37 establishments had to shut their doors and turn folks away to ensure that they could meet the needs of their existing medical marijuana customers.

“The demand was huge,” Neal McQueeney, principal officer of Midway Dispensary near Midway Airport, told The Chicago Tribune. “We knew we were going to run out. It was a matter of when, not if.”

If you just look at the other 10 states that have legalized recreational marijuana over the last few years, indications show the demand for legal weed will continue — as will the mounds of money to be made by state treasuries, which could translate to a wave of cash for Illinois and perhaps mend some of its not-so-secret budget woes.

“Given that recreational cannabis is taxed at 26.25 percent, the tax revenue range annually from the excise and sales taxes would be $443,690,100 (to) $676,481,400 annually ... if all cannabis consumers purchased from the legal market,” a state-commissioned report issued last year stated.

But as popular as buying weed legally was in just the first week, the state might have underestimated.

For example, Colorado — one of the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014 — reported in June that, in just six years, it had surpassed $1 billion in marijuana sales tax revenue. Today, the state spends its overflow of cash on building schools, battling homelessness, on youth and health programs and anti-bullying initiatives, among other essential endeavors, as The Denver Post reported.

If states pass amnesty laws like Illinois' or allow people with convictions to participate, such legislation would also create jobs among those who supplied the demand for marijuana before it was legal. According to Leafly.com, a cannabis-focused news website, the marijuana industry employs 211,000 full-time workers nationwide.

Yet some people continue to labor under the seriously dated delusion that marijuana is “a gateway drug.”

For instance, at a rally in Las Vegas in November, former Vice President Joe Biden said, “There’s not nearly been enough evidence that’s been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug.” (He later disavowed his own statements, telling reporters, “I said some say pot was a gateway drug.”) But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Prevention, “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.”

But whether Biden personally believes it or not, he acknowledges that a large subset of voters do. And that bothers me — like lies and ignorance bother me. Even with all the clinical evidence — though scientists have hardly been allowed to study it — and all the qualitative and quantitative data that demonstrates the medicinal benefits, and even with the financial benefits of legalizing marijuana for recreational use and the lack of comparative harm from doing so, we are still stuck in some perverse playback loop of “Reefer Madness.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, which is a category for substances that “have no currently accepted medical use in the United States,” when there’s a blizzard of clinical evidence that proves them wrong and while medicinal marijuana is legal in nearly every state in the union. Still, the DEA continues to lump the plant — the medicine — in a category with LSD, heroin and MDMA.

And because they do, too many people of color are behind bars for possession of marijuana, and too many legitimate businesses trying to operate within the confines of their states’ laws are facing miles of red tape at the federal level, and, indeed, far too many patients are facing difficulty accessing the medications they desperately need.

Marijuana is not the boogeyman, and it’s certainly not a “gateway drug,” regardless of what some boomers will tell you. Biden has all but handed away the weed vote, so don’t waste yours on him. But until then, take a jaunt to Illinois — I hear their weed is pretty choice.