When a new study reported that legal marijuana could have dire circumstances for the Midwest, it marked the latest in an onslaught of public relations attempts to affect the outcome of the legalization debate in Illinois.
On one side, the cannabis industry, investors, social justice advocates, and mostly Democratic lawmakers are calling for an end what they consider a destructive war against a relatively harmless and sometimes beneficial drug.
On the other side, law enforcement, addiction counselors, preachers, and most Republican lawmakers warn about the dangers of legalizing another mind-altering addictive substance.
While each side has passionate true believers, their efforts are also driven in part by national non-profit groups funded by often-undisclosed donors. Their target audience is both the general public, two-thirds of whom in Illinois support legalization, polls show, and undecided state lawmakers, who plan to consider legalizing weed for recreational use this spring.
The Marijuana Policy Project, whose goal is to legalize and regulate marijuana like alcohol, boasts of having changed laws through voter initiatives in other states like Colorado, as well as in Vermont, which last year became the first state to legalize the drug through the legislature. With an annual budget exceeding $2 million, the group claims that it was “instrumental” in getting Illinois to legalize medical marijuana, and is involved in ongoing negotiations over the current legalization bill.
Long-time Marijuana Policy Project board member Joseph “Joby” Pritzker is an investor in vaporizer makers Juul and Pax Labs, and MJ Freeway, which sells cannabis-tracking software. He is also a second cousin of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who favors legalizing marijuana. The project recently participated in the governor’s committee to study cannabis policy and criminal justice reform, and is working on efforts to craft legislation to legalize the plant.
The group’s arch-enemy is Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, led by Kevin Sabet, a former adviser at the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, who now directs the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. He calls the marijuana industry the new Big Tobacco, making profits by selling a harmful, addictive drug.
SAM supports Healthy & Productive Illinois, a local affiliate that opposes legalization, represented in Springfield by longtime lobbyist Tim MacAnarney. Its grassroots coordinator is Jamie Epstein, head of the Stand Strong Coalition, which has in the past received funding from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and works against drug abuse at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire and in surrounding areas.
Latest report adds fuel to debate
Each side tries to influence public perception of the issue. The latest example of this was a report on the downside of legalization, issued by the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA.
The little-known agency has raised its profile by tackling this issue recently. It is administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the same agency where Sabet worked under the Bush and Obama administrations. It funds joint anti-drug operations by other law enforcement agencies, like the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local police.
In Colorado, the Rocky Mountain HIDTA has become a thorn in the side of Colorado’s legal weed industry, periodically issuing reports on the negative effects of legalization. The Midwest HIDTA does not cover Illinois, except for the Rock Island area, but Smart Approaches to Marijuana capitalized on the report by sending out a statement that the report’s findings could apply to Illinois.
Among other things, the report found that marijuana-related traffic deaths increased sharply in Colorado after legalization, that youth use was higher in states with legal marijuana, and that legal marijuana would generate $4.50 in costs for every $1 it generates in tax revenue.
The executive director of the Midwest HIDTA, Jeffrey Stamm, said that in addition to the data in the report, he has seen the negative effects of drug use first-hand.
“The intent of our report was purely educational,” he said. “A lot of people look at how marijuana legalization will affect the individual, but I think the evidence is overwhelming that the costs greatly outweigh any purported benefits.”
But critics have attacked the information in the report, much of which had been reported previously, as one-sided and misleading. Because signs of marijuana use remain in the body for weeks after the high has worn off, its presence in those involved in fatal crashes does not show whether it played a cause in the accident. Youth use was higher in states like California, Colorado and Oregon before legalization, and have not increased in Colorado, at least, since then. And the $4.50 cost per $1 benefit estimate has questionable costs that do not distinguish from the costs of illegal marijuana use that are already occurring.
Kelvin McCabe, a criminal defense attorney in downstate Macomb on the legal committee for Illinois NORML, which advocates legalization, argued that keeping the drug illegal drives the price up and leaves it unregulated, leaving it for unscrupulous dealers who sell to minors.
“We hear police are there to enforce the law, not to make it, but they are injecting themselves into policy,” he said. “You can play with statistics and claim whatever you want.”
‘People making their case’
SAM co-founder Sabet said any connections with the Office of National Drug Policy were purely coincidental. He estimated his group will spend about $250,000 to try to stop legalization in Illinois this year, far less than he expects the cannabis industry to spend. He said that SAM is funded primarily by donations from families affected by addiction, and from some private foundations, but takes no money from pharmaceutical, tobacco or alcohol companies, which may lose significant revenue if marijuana is legalized.
He noted that several medical groups, many members of law enforcement, the Illinois Association of Housing Authorities, and the Midwest Truckers Association all oppose legalization. He compared the situation in Illinois to that in New Jersey, which also had a governor and legislature that favored legalization, but where a bill to do so stalled recently due to concerns from the black caucus and others.
“People do not want pot shops in their community, and do not want more stoned drivers on the roadways,” he said. “There’s a human side to this that has real consequences.”
A “shell” state bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, but has no details on paper yet, passed out of a committee to the full Senate last week. State Sen. Heather Steans, sponsoring the bill with Rep. Kelly Cassidy, said negotiations over the details of the bill, including creating new licenses for craft marijuana growers, processors and transporters, are continuing with the governor’s office and other stakeholders. She hopes to introduce the bill by the end of April, and pass it by the end of May, with sales beginning early next year.
As for the players coming on each side of the issue, she said, “It’s just as all advocates do. It’s no different than any big substantive bill in terms of people making their case.”
On Thursday, pro-legalization groups made their case at the Thompson Center in Chicago. Partners in the push include ACLU Illinois, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Clergy for a New Drug Policy, and union officials, including Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union State Council.
He spoke of the estimated $350 million to $700 million a year the measure could raise in tax revenue, and provisions to clear the criminal records of thousands of workers with minor marijuana convictions.
“We need this legislation to help our most vulnerable communities and to create opportunities for both working families and entrepreneurs,” he said.
Tribune reporter Ally Marotti contributed to this report.
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April 5, 2019 at 06:24PM