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Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey was one of four elected officials who held a news conference Monday to support decriminalizing marijuana in Illinois. | Sun-Times Media File Photo

Officials call for recreational pot use to be legalized

It’s time for Illinois lawmakers to move beyond state-sanctioned medical marijuana and, as they say, legalize it.

At least that’s according to four Chicago-area Democrats who hold elected public offices. The group held a press conference Monday at the Cook County building, calling for the state to decriminalize marijuana possession and — eventually — legalize recreational use of the leafy plant.

“The main difference between the War on Drugs and Prohibition is that, after 40 years, this country still hasn’t acknowledged that the War on Drugs is a failure,” Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey said, drawing a parallel with the outlawing of booze in the early 20th Century.  



Illinois is already in the process of making medical pot available to those with a so-called legitimate need.

But backers of the budding effort — including Chicago-area state representatives Mike Zalewski, Kelly Cassidy and Christian Mitchell who also appeared with Fritchey at the news conference — cited a bevy of statistics that suggested pot legalization could help solve more than just medical ailments.

For example, racial minorities are often the target of enforcement efforts, they say. Meanwhile, their white counterparts are not arrested to the same degree for marijuana possession, they say.

“You’ll see people getting swept off the streets on a daily basis on the South Side and the West Side. You don’t see kids getting arrested in Lincoln Park,” said Fritchey, who is a former legislator. 

But anyone pining for statewide legalization should probably sit down, order a pizza and chill.

The group has yet to drop a bill in Springfield to legalize the drug and, in reality, substantive change is likely a ways off, the group acknowledged.  At this point they just want fellow Democrats in the General Assembly to green-light a task force to study the issue. The hope, they say, is that Illinois will eventually develop a more laissez-faire approach to pot, which for now is classified a “dangerous” Schedule I narcotic by the federal government.

Voters in Washington state and Colorado recently passed measures at the ballot box that did just that, though the new marijuana laws in those states are in conflict with federal drug laws.  

In Illinois, action by state lawmakers would be required; the state does not have as robust a referendum and initiative process as the other two states, proponents said.

One upshot of legalization is that cash-strapped state and local governments could tax weed sales, delivering useful cash at a time when many are struggling to find new sources or revenue.

Still, any push to decriminalize or legalize pot would draw opponents.

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police is one. Stopping drivers from driving while high would be a big concern for law enforcement, said John Kennedy, executive director for the group.

“We have a problem with driving under the influence on our highways and this is going to make it much, much worse,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy was also skeptical about the suggestion that legalization of weed could free cops up to bust bigger criminals instead of low-level pot smokers.

“In theory, it’s a possibly. But I don’t think  it is in reality,” he said, adding that pot can be a gateway to more dangerous drugs.

Still, backers say public opinion is already swaying to their side.

“Public opinion moves much more quickly than legislators’ [opinions],” said Cassidy. If marijuana is decriminalized, she added: “The sky won’t fall.”