Recreational cannabis becomes legal in Illinois in less than three months — on Jan. 1. Let’s lean back and think about what that means.
Law enforcement will face challenges as consumers indulge in a new legal high. Tax revenue from marijuana, so eagerly sought by elected officials, will either meet expectations or disappoint. Teens will need to be educated on the health risks for their growing brains and bodies, though pot will only be sold legally to adults 21 and over.
Other impacts are certain to surprise. Worst-case scenario: Confusion reigns, supplies are inconsistent — costly lawsuits follow. This being Illinois, it’s easy to imagine the legalization of a multibillion-dollar, highly regulated industry leads sooner rather than later to corruption investigations and indictments.
Maybe recreational weed in Illinois will turn out to be a chill experience for all. But right now a few things about the rollout seem hazy.
Marijuana is going to be big business. The Tribune’s Ally Marotti reports that Eventually, nearly 946,000 Illinois residents — more than 9% of people over age 21 — could become cannabis consumers, according to a study commissioned for Illinois lawmakers. Out of the roughly 114 million visitors to Illinois each year, almost 11 million are expected to buy weed.
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Many necessary regulations are not yet in place. The state allowed just 180 days to lay the foundation for the state’s recreational pot industry. Contrast this with the three years it took for video gambling to ping to life after it was legalized in Illinois, and the two years to get medical marijuana into the hands of the sick.
Municipalities will decide whether to allow recreational-cannabis dispensaries in their borders, leaving plenty of power in the hands of local officials. Marijuana companies are jockeying for a limited number of the coveted licenses, awarded by the state, to grow and sell weed. As if whispering directly to Illinois, the FBI recently warned of an emerging “public corruption threat” in the industry nationally. “States require licenses to grow and sell the drug — opening the possibility for public officials to become susceptible to bribes in exchange for those licenses,” said FBI public affairs specialist Mollie Halpern.
The Illinois law includes social equity provisions that will allow people with low-level marijuana convictions to get their records expunged. Measures also are designed to help people get into the business who have prior cannabis-related offenses or come from neighborhoods impacted by prior, aggressive law enforcement action against drug users. These are broad, ambitious, complex goals that open a window to fraud by those who want a piece of those perks. “You’re going to have a lot of straw-man agreements,” cautioned Cassandra Farrington, co-founder and CEO of Marijuana Business Daily, in the Tribune. We recall that Chicago has a history of massive fraud in set-aside contracts meant to benefit women and minorities.
Another interesting twist: The federal prohibition on cannabis prevents banks from handling proceeds, so legal weed companies largely operate in cash. The lack of a bank-recorded paper trail on transactions makes theft and fraud that much easier. The U.S. House of Representatives just passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would permit banks to work with cannabis businesses that are following state law, but it’s unclear how the Senate will proceed.
Illinois state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, a Democrat from south suburban Olympia Fields, will serve as the state’s cannabis regulation oversight officer. She was a chief sponsor of the marijuana law and will now coordinate efforts among agencies involved in all of the above issues, and more, including the vaping crisis. There’s quite a bit to do in the coming months. We hope the launch of recreational cannabis rises above the potential pitfalls, rather than leaving blame to pass around.