By: Crain’s Editorial Board
It’s the best idea to come out of the Cook County Board since killing the pop tax. We’re talking about County Commissioner John Fritchey’s crusade to legalize recreational use of marijuana within Cook County limits. Fritchey’s been beating this particular drum for months, but he picked up the tempo Nov. 7 when he announced he had enough support from board colleagues to get the idea on the ballot in the March 20 primary election. The concept deserves a vote—and Cook County residents should support it.
As Crain’s political columnist Greg Hinz notes, the costs of our present pot policy are real: Taxpayers spend a small fortune to prosecute low-level marijuana possession charges, while those arrested end up with an ill-deserved record that hurts their ability to work and live their lives. In fact, of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests nationwide between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for simply having marijuana, and enforcing the laws currently on the books costs taxpayers about $3.6 billion a year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
A better idea: Cut the cost of arresting, processing and trying people for possession, and tax them instead. That’s what Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C., are doing. In fact, roughly 1 in 5 Americans now live in places where it’s legal to smoke pot without a doctor’s consent and, by one estimate, the legalized marijuana industry is on track to post $20.2 billion in sales by 2021.
States that have legalized marijuana are expected to generate about $655 million in state taxes on retail sales in 2017. And here’s a scenario that may be almost unimaginable in a county that just recently broke out in a near-civil war over a penny-an-ounce pop tax: Marijuana tax revenue has actually exceeded expectations to such a degree that some states, seeking to strike the right balance and suppress the black market, have actually tapped the brakes and lowered the tax rate on weed.
Those who worry about harmful effects on public health, safety and crime should be encouraged by the data coming out of the early-adopter states—particularly Colorado and Washington. Legalization has not led to more dangerous road conditions, as traffic fatality rates have remained stable in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon. And statewide surveys of young people in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon found that there were no significant increases in youth marijuana use post-legalization. Meanwhile, marijuana arrests have plummeted.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who no doubt is still smarting from her soda-tax smackdown, argues that Cook County is in dire need of new revenue. And while we’re still skeptical her administration has wrung every bit of fat out of its budget, we acknowledge how much better shape the county is in now than it was when she took office, and the services county government provides are indeed crucial, from health care delivery to the courts and jails. But if the county still has a budget hole to fill in the wake of the pop-tax debacle, the answer is—or could be—blowin’ in the wind.