By: Greg Hinz
With one eye on government’s bottom line and another on public opinion, a Cook County commissioner today announced plans to let county residents vote in the March 20 primary on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Barely after the proposed advisory referendum was announced, Commissioner John Fritchey said he already has enough support from colleagues to assure the measure makes it to the ballot.
Fritchey said he’s acting because taxpayers spend a small fortune to prosecute low-level possession charges and because those arrested end up with an ill-deserved record that hurts their ability to work and live their lives.
“It’s clear that the biggest impact of our current laws is to waste millions of dollars while unnecessarily burdening both the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and the Office of Public Defender,” Fritchey said. “It is also taking police officers off the streets instead of having them dealing with more serious crimes. Let’s stop wasting precious resources on misdemeanor marijuana possession charges so we can focus on more pressing issues, like gun violence and the opioid epidemic.”
Instead of costing money, pot could make government a real fortune if it were legalized and taxed, added Fritchey, a North Side Democrat.
It’s not clear how much local government still spends on marijuana-possession charges.
“Unless it’s in connection with a more serious offense, we do not simply target people for possession,” with offenders merely given a citation akin to a traffic ticket, said Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. “Dealing is another story.”
Fritchey said he’s seen research putting the local cost at up to $70 million a year, but conceded the data is a few years old.
Officially, the state of Illinois has the same policy: those caught with pot are subject to a fine, but no longer face a jail sentence.
There is substantial evidence that jurisdictions that have taken the next step and not just decriminalized, but legalized and taxed weed are getting a financial windfall. In Colorado, for instance, marijuana taxes netted the state just under $193 million last year, with another $182 million garnered just through September of this year.
Fritchey also cited changing public opinion. According to a recent survey by the Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University, two-thirds of voters favor legalization if marijuana is taxed and regulated like alcohol.
Besides that, he argues, someone should not lose the ability to get a job or an apartment for something that, in his view, is less harmful to them than smoking or drinking alcohol.
Fritchey is pushing for a vote at the Dec. 13 meeting of the County Board. While a referendum on legalization would be only advisory, legislators are likely to take note of the results, said Fritchey, a former state representative who sponsored an early version of the state law allowing medical use of marijuana.