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North Siders Express High Hopes For Legal Weed At First Town Hall Meeting

By Linze Rice | April 20, 2017 6:08am | Updated on April 21, 2017 11:42am
 Nearly every resident in attendance raised hands in support of legalizing recreational marijuana for adult use.
Nearly every resident in attendance raised hands in support of legalizing recreational marijuana for adult use.
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DNAinfo/Linze Rice

EDGEWATER — The overwhelming majority of Edgewater residents who met with state lawmakers Wednesday night to discuss legalizing marijuana in the state showed support for the idea. 

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy and Sen. Heather Steans, both Democrats whose districts cover Edgewater, held a town hall meeting to speak with constituents about their two bills pending in the General Assembly that would create a system for regulating and taxing marijuana sales in an effort to bring in $350 million to $700 million a year. 

Of about 100 people who attended the forum, only two raised their hands opposing the measures. 

"Marijuana makes me actually feel like a human being," said Caitlyn Ziarko, a medical marijuana patient who suffers from interstitial cystitis, a chronic and painful bladder condition. "It lets me live a normal life; without it I would not be out of my bed."

The town hall meeting came on the heels of the first hearing held on the bills, which was earlier in the day Downtown and included testimony from legislators, proponents and Barbara Brohl, executive director of Colorado's Department of Revenue, who explained how legal marijuana is helping fund essential state programs in her state.

The legislators emphasized that "prohibition doesn't work" when it comes to marijuana and said they would rather find a way to bring revenue to the state, create a path away from the opioid epidemic, provide a safer and more transparent regulatory system for marijuana sales, and unplug a legal system clogged with low-level marijuana charges, which disproportionately punish racial minorities. 

The legislation has been endorsed by a new coalition of doctors, law enforcement, clergy and other organizations that support treating marijuana like alcohol in Illinois.

The Rev. Alexander Sharp of the Coalition for a Safer Illinois and Clergy for a New Drug Policy, said the bill was a "health, not punishment, response to drugs."

Judy Tsui, a lawyer who lives in Rogers Park, said while in court she often sees teenagers of color being pumped through the criminal justice system because of marijuana — "one of the main reasons" she showed up Wednesday night to back Steans and Cassidy's bills.

Several doctors and mental health professionals also spoke up in support of legalizing pot for adults 21 and over, saying the financial barriers to medical marijuana in Illinois have left many of their patients making unsafe back alley deals in order to obtain it. 

Ziarko, who was there with her mother, Janet, said her family understands all too well the need for drug reform, including legalizing recreational marijuana, tackling opioid addiction and revamping the current medical pilot program — her brother is serving 10 years in prison for opioid-induced homicide. 

Not wanting to risk substance abuse herself, Ziarko said medical marijuana has been a saving grace.

But, as her mother pointed out, the state's program is still only a pilot program. 

"If that's taken away, then what will she have?"

 State Sen. Heather Steans (left) and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy discuss their proposed bills with constituents in Edgewater Wednesday night. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

Under the recreational law, Illinois residents could possess up to an ounce of pot and five plants. Nonresidents could possess half an ounce. The bill would impose a $50 per ounce tax on pot at the wholesale level, while sales to the public would be subject to the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.

Businesses producing marijuana for sale would be bound by labeling requirements and marketing restrictions.

The revenue from marijuana sales would be earmarked for schools as well as treatment and education programs about the dangers of marijuana, alcohol and tobacco.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has said the idea needs more study, but the legislators hope to change his mind.

"I think recreational marijuana is a very, very difficult subject," Rauner said during an appearance in Rock Island earlier this month, adding that Illinois should look at the impact that legalizing marijuana has had on the states that have already decriminalized the drug.

"I am not in support of Illinois going there until we study the ramifications of what's happening in other states," Rauner said, according to WQAD-TV.

Steans said she and Cassidy wanted to gather as much feedback as possible before putting the bill up for a vote, but also believed it to be a "when, not if, situation."

On Wednesday night the legislators said the bills likely would not be voted on until at least the next legislative session, which doesn't start until January.

If Rauner were to veto the bills, they would go back to the Legislature and require a super majority to pass. 

If the measures were to pass, it would take at least a year for recreational use to be implemented throughout the state, Steans and Cassidy said. 

The pair are making their next community appearance to discuss the proposed bills at 11 a.m. Sunday at Rogers Park Social, 6920 N. Glenwood Ave. in Rogers Park.