What You Need to Know About the Marijuana Legalization Bill in Illinois

Over the past many months, LEAD, in conjunction with many of our prevention and coalition colleagues and partners, has been working tirelessly to research, strategize, and align our approach to this legislation. I'd like to share our findings with you below.

Dear Friends,

I’m not exactly sure where to begin, so I’m just going to start writing and see what happens. This will be a long email, but it is everything I believe you need to know about the rush to commercialize marijuana in Illinois. In it, I will share my position, state some facts, link to some resources, reveal the conflicts of interest by bill sponsors, challenge some half-truths, and show how we’ve been pushing back.

It has been talked about for some time, but the bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in Illinois has officially dropped in Springfield, and is now moving quickly through the legislative process. The bill sponsors, along with Gov. Pritzker, have made it widely and publicly known that they expect this bill to pass during the current legislative session that ends on May 31 st . I was in Springfield both last week and the week before, and I happen to disagree.

Over the past many months, LEAD, in conjunction with many of our prevention and coalition colleagues and partners, has been working tirelessly to research, strategize, and align our approach to this legislation. We’ve hosted town hall meetings. We’ve participated in public gatherings. We’ve held events for legislators, municipal leaders, educators and law enforcement. We’ve been in schools and have talked directly with students – something the authors and sponsors of this bill have failed to do. Furthermore, we’ve talked to people “on the ground” in states that have legalized marijuana – Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California to name a few, and we have come to a pretty solid understanding of why this legislation, specifically as presently constituted, will be harmful to young people and to our communities. (More on that in a second).

Two weeks ago, a group of about 15 of us went down to Springfield to speak at a press conference and to meet one-on-one with legislators in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle. In total, our group met with more than 40 legislators in-person. We took seriously our job to educate them about the bill and about the consequences we have seen in states where marijuana has been legalized and commercialized.

On Wednesday of last week, I was invited to testify in front of the Senate Executive Committee in Springfield. I would like to share my testimony with you below, because I believe it succinctly sums up my thoughts on the issue at present:

Good morning.

My name is Andy Duran, and I am the Executive Director of Linking Efforts Against Drugs based on the North Shore of Chicago.

I have spent my entire career working with youth, and I work with youth in schools and communities nearly every day. I see first-hand, on a nearly daily basis, the effect that substance use and abuse has on the lives of our youth, so I have significant concerns about creating a commercialized industry for marijuana here in our state.

I want to make sure you truly understand that Senate Bill 7 is not just about “legalizing” marijuana. This bill calls for full “commercialization” – allowing the development of a fully commercialized retail industry for a harmful, addictive drug.

You hear the argument that we should not be throwing people in jail for simple marijuana use. Agreed. Our state already has worked toward a solution to this problem by decriminalizing marijuana.

You hear the argument that cancer patients and other persons who are sick are in need of marijuana to feel better. Fine. Our state has already legalized marijuana for a variety of medical conditions.

You hear the argument that more than 800,000 people in Illinois are already using marijuana, so we should just legalize it. Really? We have more than 800,000 people in Illinois speeding on our roadways everyday. Should we make that legal too?

What we’re really talking about is the creation of a fully commercialized industry that is incentivized to sell as much marijuana as it can. If this were truly a bill about public health, creating an industry of addiction profiteers would be strictly off the table. Those are the people who will profit, and they will do so on the backs of our youth.

Although the proponent side may argue that youth usage rates have gone down in states where marijuana has been legalized, that doesn’t tell the whole story. I don’t believe in just cherry-picking data points. So, let’s look at this in the proper context. Youth marijuana usage rates, according to SAMHSA’s National Survey for Drug Use and Health, had been going down for years – prior to any legislative efforts – because prevention and education work! The real story is that the 22 states with the highest frequency of marijuana use among youth ages 12-17 in the United States all have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. On the other side of that dataset, 16 of the 17 states with the lowest frequency of youth marijuana use have no form of legalized marijuana . This is certainly a significant correlation. 

There’s a reason that Marlboro’s parent company, Altria, just invested $1.8 billion in the Big Marijuana industry. This is the same company that just invested $38 billion in e-cigarette maker JUUL. 90% of addiction begins in adolescence. The industry knows that just like you and I do. Marketing to youth is simply part of the business model.

You’ll hear it said that this is a bill that will “Restore our Communities” and will finally bring justice to communities that have been adversely affected by the war on drugs. 

So, let me get this straight. Setting up shop and selling more drugs in these communities is the best answer we can come up with?  That’s really your solution? That makes no sense. I don’t believe that pumping in more drugs will truly “restore these communities.”

Make no mistake, this is not a bill about public health.

This is not a bill about social justice.

This is a bill about money. Plain and simple.

Clearly, there is a lack of understanding about what’s really at stake.  Are you sure this is what you want to do?  If I were in your seats, I know that I couldn’t fully support anything of this magnitude if I wasn’t 100% sure that it was the right thing to do for the people of this state. That is your sworn-responsibility. There are still so many unanswered questions. 

I would also like to highlight that, as we sit here today, the current witness slips filed for Senate Bill 7 stands at 1,187 opponents to 602 proponents. There are a growing number of people with the right information who have come out in opposition to this harmful bill. What’s the rush? Now is not the time for Illinois.

I’d like to ask everyone to look up for a moment. The mural on the ceiling above is said to represent the goddess of justice trampling on coins – indicating that in Illinois, justice is not for sale!

Thank you for your consideration.

There’s my testimony. Furthermore, I can’t count the number of radio interviews, TV news stories, newspaper articles, blog posts, etc. that our cohort of coalitions and professionals has been featured in over the past few weeks. We’re hitting this hard because we believe in public health (and we believe what we see in Senate Bill 7 isn’t it)!

My personal concerns do not stop there. I believe there are provisions in Senate Bill 7 that are rife with opportunities for corruption. We’ve actually already seen that play out. One of the Chief Co-Sponsors of the bill, Sen. Patricia Van Pelt from Illinois’ 5 th District, is selling seats for $99 to her upcoming workshop entitled, Riding the Wave to Wealth! Cannabis Stock & Other Emerging Industries.

Seemingly using insider information she has as a state Senator and bill sponsor, Sen. Van Pelt promises that participants are “going to learn how to invest in the stock market and what cannabis companies are viable.” Furthermore, Sen. Van Pelt, clearly undeterred by ethics laws that prohibit public officials from using their office to enrich themselves, indicated to prospective workshop participants that she knows how to get the licenses. Sen. Van Pelt’s interest in the cannabis industry certainly presents as a conflict of interest, does it not?
She has since been removed as a Chief Co-Sponsor of Senate Bill 7. Will she also recuse herself from the vote if and when the bill is presented on the floor?

I am registered to attend Sen. Van Pelt’s workshop. I’ll let you know what I learn.

“Over Two Years”
One of the key defense arguments used by the bill sponsors when asked why this bill seems to be on the fast-track is to state that they “have been working on this for over two years.” I was at the public hearing last week, and I can tell you that there were more questions than answers. When pressed by tough questions from the Senate Executive Committee members, the panel of bill sponsors demurred with “I’ll have to get back to you on that,” or “we will work through that.” The legislature should be nowhere near ready to even vote on this bill, much less pass it.

While it is true that Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy have indeed worked on some form of marijuana legislation for over two years, I want to be clear that the current bill , which is 521 pages long, was only filed on May 6 th . This bill looks completely different from previous iterations, and 3 weeks is nowhere near enough time to consider something of this magnitude.

What’s the rush? Why now? Why does this have to get done during this legislative session, before May 31? Why don’t we continue to take advantage of the fact that we’re not first? Let’s take another year and let both sides agree to design an independent study to examine the experience of the early-adopting states. It would be important for both sides to agree on how this independent study is conducted, and by whom it is being conducted (i.e. perhaps not by an organization that has Pritzker’s or Steans’ name on a building). This would allow us to get away from competing studies that have both sides saying the other is making false claims. Nobody, to my knowledge, has done it this way. Wouldn’t it be cool to be first?

What I’ve Been Told
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had some productive conversations with legislators, and some conversations that were less than productive. Some of the legislators I have spoken to have been well-informed and respectful enough to listen. Others have been less interested. Just to share some of my experience with you, I thought I would share some of the things that members of our Illinois Senate and House have had to say related to their support of Senate Bill 7. My response is in parenthesis:

“Actually, drugged driving instances go down.” (Umm, no. Both common sense and data need to prevail on this one. The evidence is here and here).

“You won’t see things like big billboards with pot leaves.” (Nope. There are, as I write this, 2 billboards off the Edens Expressway in Chicago that advertise a medical cannabis dispensary with pot leaves. Here’s photo-evidence of that, shot just last week. There are supposed to be strict regulations regarding the advertising of medical dispensaries and products to the general public, i.e. no billboards. Do we really think we’ll see less advertising than we already see if marijuana is commercialized? The marketing provisions in the bill, and the regulations thereof, are not adequate).

“Marijuana is not addictive.” (This is also misinformed. All real medical evidence speaks to the truth that marijuana is a harmful, addictive drug. Just because everybodydoesn’t get addicted to marijuana doesn’t mean it’s not addictive. The evidence is hereand here. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics and Lurie Children’s Hospital, among others, have come out against legalization).

“We’ve been at this for over two years.” (That may be true as it relates to research and draft legislation, but sponsors have been at this bill for barely two weeks).“I’m voting for this because Cassidy [bill sponsor] has ‘worked very hard.’” (When did that become the baseline for good policy? There are a lot of my friends who have worked very hard, too).

Hold on, it gets worse:
“I don’t care about your concerns. You’re barking up the wrong tree.” (I didn’t, and still don’t, have an answer for this one.)

In Conclusion
In short, I’m frustrated. This is definitely a David vs. Goliath battle. But, there are a lot of us willing to work on behalf of the safety of our youth and communities. Here’s what I think: I think we’re getting out of this session without a marijuana bill. That’s what my gut says at least. I could be wrong, but we’ll know for sure in a couple weeks. Our work will continue, nonetheless.

What Can You Do?
We’re on it, but we need you on it too. The simple answer, right now, is that you can let your legislators know your position. We have made this very easy for you. At this page on our website , we have pre-scripted a letter for you that you can add to or revise as you see fit. Once you enter your name, email address, and sign using your touchscreen or mouse, simply click the “Send Now” button at bottom. This will automatically send your letter to every legislator in the state. You don’t have to look up email addresses, telephone numbers, mailing addresses, etc. We’ve done that work for you on the backend. All you have to do is pull up the site, enter a few details, and in less than 30 seconds you can make a difference.

Note: The image above, “Illinois State Capitol ~ Springfield Illinois ~ Historic Building” by Onasill ~ Bill – 72.7M is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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