Illinois’ newly approved plan to legalize recreational marijuana appears well thought out, with stringent controls and a reasonable tax structure. Legislators wisely decided last week to pull back on a proposal to permit recreational users to grow their own marijuana, opting instead to limit that provision to medical patients only. Given the tenuous nature of the legalization process, it’s best to take baby steps while maximizing the taxation benefits of recreational use.
Missouri, embarking on its own new medical-marijuana program (Illinois has had one since 2013), should closely watch and learn on this issue from a neighbor that’s further down a path Missouri will likely follow. Whether everyone likes it or not, full legalization is the wave of the future. Doing it right, as this newspaper has suggested before, will determine whether that’s a net benefit for society.
The long-standing federal ban on marijuana, like the ban on alcohol in the 1920s, criminalizes a product that many Americans are going to use anyway, inviting widespread contempt for the law, fueling organized crime and passing up valuable tax revenue. The marijuana ban, in fact, makes even less sense than Prohibition did, since pot is a demonstrably less dangerous product than alcohol — or cigarettes, for that matter.
But that’s not an argument for treating marijuana like just any other product. Indeed, alcohol remains today a tightly regulated industry, both in manufacturing and consumption. It makes sense that Illinois used that regulatory structure as a template for marijuana legalization.
The new Illinois law sets 21 as the minimum age for legal usage. It specifies who can grow and market cannabis, with preference given to businesses in minority areas, in recognition of historically uneven drug-law enforcement that has targeted minorities. It limits how much cannabis Illinois residents can have on hand: 30 grams (about 1 ounce) in flower form, with lower limits for concentrated forms.
The law bans smoking it in public places and allows businesses, employers and landlords to ban it on their premises. Importantly, it gives local governments the option to ban manufacture and sale within their boundaries, though individuals will still be able to use it privately statewide.
Tax rates for the new industry are set appropriately high — between 10% and 25%, depending on the product, in addition to standard state and local sales taxes — with revenue earmarked for various needs including education and law enforcement. As part of the new law’s implementation, Illinoisans convicted in the past of cannabis possession at now-legal quantities will get full pardons, with their records expunged.
This is largely uncharted territory; time will tell whether Illinois’ new law will need tweaking. But this approach of recognizing cultural reality while imposing reasonable restrictions is generally the right one. Missouri’s leaders should be watching closely.