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Stephanie Sunata/MEDILL

A map of the United States that shows states green that have legalized medical marijuana use.  States in orange are those with legalized recreational marijuana use laws.


Colorado votes for Rocky Mountain High, Illinois still struggles with the issue of medical marijuana use

by Stephanie Sunata
Nov 08, 2012


Though recreational marijuana is now legal in two states, Illinois isn’t likely to see such a law any time soon, according to state lawmakers.

On Tuesday, voters in Colorado and Washington approved state regulations that legalized recreational marijuana use, expanding on the medical statutes already in place in both states.

Those votes made Colorado and Washington the first states in the nation to pass recreational use measures, and a lot of questions remain unanswered.

Because marijuana use is still a federal offense, and federal law technically supersedes state laws, some question how long the measures will stick.

“Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said in a statement Tuesday.

Opponents of relaxed marijuana laws contend such laws open the door to difficulties with impaired driving and a variety of social problems. Marijuana, Illinois state Representative Patricia Bellock, (R-Elmhurst) told a TV interviewer last year, “is an issue that’s trying to be mainstreamed in America as a medicine, not a drug, and I think that’s a dangerous thing.”

It’s unlikely the federal government will fight the recreational use law, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies with the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that advocates for legalized marijuana use. The U.S. government did not take legal action against state medical marijuana laws, she said, so the recreational statutes, which legalize possession of up to one ounce of the drug, should survive.

O’Keefe compared marijuana regulations to alcohol prohibition.

Individual states were the first to outlaw alcohol before the federal government banned the substance, she said, and states were also the first to break prohibition.
That same process is now happening with marijuana, O’Keefe said.

California first legalized medical marijuana in the 1990s, and similar laws now exist in 17 other states. The most recent addition occurred in Massachusetts, where voters approved the law Tuesday.

The federal government hasn’t indicated if it will challenge the Colorado measure, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver released a statement that said marijuana is still considered a controlled substance at the federal level. “We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time,” spokesman Jeff Dorschner said in the statement

Even if the U.S. government opts to challenge these measures, O’Keefe said, the voter support shows that people are growing increasingly tolerant about marijuana use in this country.

In Colorado, in fact, legalized marijuana drew stronger support than President Obama did: About 54 percent of voters approved Amendment 64, the marijuana measure, while 51 percent supported the president.

O'Keefe said she hopes these groundbreaking measures will prompt other states to decriminalize marijuana use. “Once you have a good example of something that’s working well, I think other states will follow,” O’Keefe said.

That trend could include Illinois, but legalization isn’t likely to come any time soon, experts say. Here in Illinois, state legislators continue to battle over the much less controversial issue of legalized medical use.

In a 2008 poll, 68 percent of Illinoisans said they support legalized medical marijuana, according to a Mason-Dixon poll listed on the Marijuana Policy project website.

Illinois voters haven’t had the chance to vote on marijuana yet, but state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) co-authored a measure that he said he hopes to pass the House next session.

Lang’s House Bill 30 would make it legal for those with a special license to use marijuana to relieve pain from specified conditions including cancer, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

The bill nearly passed the House last year – with 57 votes falling only three shy of approval -- and Lang said he hopes to bring it back to the floor once the House resumes its session.

There are 92 representatives who told him they want to see the bill pass, he said, but many fear casting a public vote for it for “political reasons.”

Many state legislators are wary about the proposed law because some other states’ measures have proven to be unorganized or ineffective, Lang said. But the Illinois bill is designed to avoid such shortcomings, in order to create a “highly regulated” law for the state.

Under that measure, the state health department would regulate the medical licenses, and holders would only be allowed to have 2.5 ounces of marijuana at a time.

The bill would allow only 59 dispensaries, one for each Senate district, and all would be not-for-profit organizations, Lang said.

To ease any lingering concerns, the Illinois measure is designed to expire three years after it is approved, unless it’s renewed.

Laws like those in Colorado and Washington aren’t likely to hit Illinois in the near future, Lang said.

Given the current battle over legalized medical marijuana in Illinois, he said, “It seems quite distant in the future that we would approve marijuana for recreational use.”