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Recreational marijuana: Illinois embarks on a long, strange trip

Cannabis products are for sale on March 13, 2019, at Whole Meds, a recreational and medical dispensary in Denver. Recreational marijuana already is legal in Colorado.

Bringing recreational marijuana to Illinois means that an illicit drug will become a legal product for adults. If you’re old enough to have been a hippie, your mind is blown, we imagine. Hey, it’s freaky for younger generations, too, but probably a source of pain to any pot smoker who faced prosecution for what soon will be condoned as a lifestyle choice.

Presuming that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the bill delivered to him by the General Assembly, Illinois will become the 11th state to welcome weed. The legal ramifications are profound. But the culture change also feels significant — partly because drug use is a divisive issue. Many people in Illinois will celebrate their first legal highs. Others will be wary of what’s to come.


The closest comparison to legalizing grass is the 1933 end to Prohibition after nearly 14 years. Suddenly, drinking was allowed. Bootleggers went out of business and speak-easies went legit. Back then the Tribune Editorial Board had deemed Prohibition a mistake and a “virus” on the Constitution. “Regulation so closely concerned with human nature is better undertaken by small political units,” the Tribune said. In other words, the citizens of individual states, counties and cities know best how to oversee their own social behavior. That’s true today.

With recreational marijuana, we saw the advantages but advocated that Pritzker and lawmakers slow their eager pursuit of pot in order to learn more from other states’ experiences. We want Illinois to get its legislation and regulations right the first time. Michigan, the first Midwest state to approve recreational cannabis, is just ramping up. Pritzker, fresh into office, and his Democratic allies seemed more enamored with the tax revenue pot will generate than with engaging the public in discussion and debate. Illinois is the only state to legalize weed without first holding a citizens’ referendum.


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Now everyone will learn together what it means to have recreational marijuana. Dispensaries that currently sell medical marijuana will be open to the general public as soon as Jan. 1. Expect more such businesses to join them. The bill includes an important provision directing the governor to pardon those with a previous conviction for low-level possession. Authorities can also expunge or delete public records of convictions. These measures are meant to address the troubling legacy of racial disparities in the prosecution of drug-related cases.

The potential harms of pot won’t be understood for some time. As with alcohol, marijuana brings the risks of abuse, of use by minors and of being a safety hazard when drivers are under the influence. Local communities will have the power to ban marijuana businesses, though not private use. One looming challenge: Law enforcement will need to determine how to detect impairment among drivers.

How else will Illinois be different once a mainstay of the counterculture goes mainstream? Smoking and otherwise consuming cannabis products won’t be allowed in any public places such as streets and parks, but we expect the air in some neighborhoods at times will take on a sweeter aroma — to the annoyance of some residents. Condo associations may find themselves grappling with whether to adopt tighter smoking rules. Employers will have to decide whether to continue drug testing or accept cannabis use outside of working hours. Another option, we suppose: expanding imbibing choices at the company TGIF.

It adds up to a demanding new experience for a politically diverse state. People who find that marijuana relaxes, heals or otherwise enhances their lives will enjoy the new Illinois. Some people will abuse the privilege and pay a cost. Others will feel uncomfortable because what they considered dangerous or immoral will suddenly become as trendy and marketable as a craft beer.

This will take time to shake out. Vigilance is needed to ensure the legal framework is established properly. And tolerance on all sides will help.

Because as the Grateful Dead, early advocates of mind-bending substances, noted in song, life with drugs can make for a long, strange trip.