The movement to legalize recreational marijuana in Illinois got a big boost today. Travel writer/television host Rick Steves visited Chicago to discuss legalization with state lawmakers at committee hearings held in the General Assembly.
Steves encouraged legislators and activists to consider taking his approach to legalization, which isn't pro-pot so much as it is anti-prohibition.
"I'm not advocating smoking marijuana," Steves told Civilized following the day's events. "It's a drug. It's not healthy. I think it can be abused. I'm really interested in the civil liberty of letting people smoke marijuana if they want to. To me, that's much more fundamental. And if Illinois wants to pass this law, I feel very strongly that it should be a public safety law rather than a pro-pot law."
That means advocates in Illinois need to avoid "getting all giddy about being able to legally smoke pot" and focus instead on developing a bill that will appeal to people who don't like marijuana.
"The big challenge is to write a public safety law that respects the concerns and the fears of people who want nothing to do with marijuana. People who wish marijuana would go away," Steves explained. "We have to raise public awareness that marijuana is not going to go away. That if you care about your kids, you've got to realize that the thing that's most dangerous about marijuana is the fact that it is illegal, and that to consume it is a criminal activity."
That's because young people who get busted for simple cannabis possession will have difficulty finding jobs, getting loans and accessing higher education because they have a criminal record. So Steves hopes that Illinois legislators who oppose marijuana will still support legalization for the same reason people supported the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the 1930s.
"I don't think people were in favor of alcohol when they took down the prohibition against alcohol," Steves noted. "The idea was that the law was causing more pain to society than the drug abuse itself. So if you want to use the drug or not, that's your civil liberty. I just think we should take the crime out of the equation. And I think prohibition certainly is not productive and it's not going to suddenly become productive."
So for once, here's hoping that history does repeat itself.
Illinois Could Be a 'Tipping Point' for Widespread Legalization
Steves has been advocating for legalization over the last five years, starting with the successful campaigns to legalize recreational marijuana in Colorado as well as his home state of Washington in 2012. Most recently, he went on the campaign trail in 2016 to help Maine and Massachusetts repeal cannabis prohibition.
He thinks those gains could lead to a breakthrough in Illinois by providing lawmakers with successful examples to follow.
"I'm thankful that Illinois will have some states to look at to provide a track record," Steves told Civilized. "When we legalized in Washington and Colorado in 2012, we really didn't know what was going to happen. We had a hunch, but now there's no mystery. We know what's going to happen. There's no reason to think anything different will happen in Illinois than what happened in Oregon or Washington or Colorado. It's just a rising tide of sensibility, and Illinois is quicker than other states in the midwest to recognize that."
And getting Illinois on board with reform could help that tide rise even higher. While naysayers can dismiss legalization on the West Coast as a case of hippies running amok with state politics, a region like Illinois could make more reserved jurisdictions give legalization serious consideration.
"I think other states will perk up when Illinois legalizes," Steves added. "I think that there is the reality that when one state does it, it starts to reap all the financial benefits that are associated with taxing a formerly thriving black market, and other states start to realize they're missing the boat. I think a lot of people wrote off Colorado and Washington as a bunch of hippies. But states that have a more careful and conservative reputation are going to find out that this is smart policy and Illinois could be a tipping point."
Meanwhile, the state itself stands to make tremendous gains if legislators move ahead with legalization.
"It's very realistic to think that Illinois will have a billion dollars in tax revenue from marijuana sales in a couple of years," Steves noted. "A billion dollars every year. And I want to stress, that's not because suddenly more people are smoking pot. It's an existing industry right now that's enriching and empowering organized crime and gangs. And that black market will suddenly become a legal industry that's highly taxed. And then, the state gets to earmark that windfall. It can go to your health trust fund, your general fund, it can go to preventing drug abuse, education and helping kids. It's exciting to have this new opportunity."
But first, advocates will have to find a gubernatorial candidate in 2018 to run against incumbent Bruce Rauner, who does not support legalizing recreational marijuana.
"If you pass a law, you need a governor to sign it," Steves said. "It looks to me like the legislative branch is ready to pass it, but they've got a to get a governor that's a little more tuned into the realities of drug abuse and the tragedy of the prohibition against marijuana."