Marijuana legalization predicted to improve Illinois
When asked why they thought the legalization of marijuana would be good for the state of Illinois, a 53-year-old informal poll respondent answered: “I would be afraid that people would drive while they are high. Also doesn’t it kill brain cells? Marijuana is a drug and those who have trouble with addiction can become addicted to it.”
Concerns like these have become commonplace across the United States as many states — like Oregon, California and Colorado — have legalized recreational use of marijuana over the past few years. As Illinois becomes the next state to legalize the drug — and the second-most populated state, behind California — many are wondering how it will affect citizens’ wellbeing.
Recreational marijuana will become legal in Illinois as of Jan. 1, 2020. On June 26, 2019, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill into law making recreational use of marijuana legal for those 21 and older, and lets “resident adults buy and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis ‘flower,’ along with marijuana-infused foods known as edibles and small amounts of highly concentrated extracts,” according to USA Today.
Consumption of marijuana will be prohibited in public places (except for medical use) like parks, school grounds or on the street. It will also be illegal to consume marijuana “in any motor vehicle, in a correctional facility, near someone under 21, while driving a boat or flying a plane, or by a school bus driver, police, fire or corrections officer while on duty,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The law allows for smoking at home, as long as “outsiders can’t see it.”
How the product is taxed will depend on its THC level. Products with THC levels more than 35 percent will be taxed at 25 percent, products at or less than 35 percent will be taxed at 10 percent and cannabis-infused products like edibles will be taxed at 20 percent. This will also be in combination with the typical state and local sales taxes and special taxes added by municipalities and counties, according to the Chicago Tribune. “This will have a transformational impact on our state, creating opportunity in the communities that need it most and giving so many a second chance,” Pritzker told the Chicago Tribune.
Marijuana — often referred to weed or pot colloquially — is made up of the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are three main categories that cannabis can fall under: indica, sativa and hybrid, according to Healthline. Indica has a relaxing effect on users and Sativa has more of an energizing effect on users, while the hybrid category is a combination of the two.
Although it contains hundreds of cannabinoids — or chemical compounds — marijuana is made up of two main components: THC and CBD. Both interact with the body’s “endocannabinoid system,” a system of cell-signaling parts that keep many parts of the body running smoothly, such as sleep, metabolism, mood, motor control and many others. THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is what gives users the high or euphoric feeling when they consume marijuana. CBD, short for cannabidiol, is what brings a calm or relaxed feeling and doesn’t make users feel "high," according to Healthline.
According to Jerome Wilczynski, the director of the Counseling Center at Roosevelt University, THC over activates the regions of the brain that are involved in altering your senses, which means that a person’s five senses are heavily affected — colors look brighter, touch feels different, time can feel faster or slower, etc. Mood and movement can also be influenced by THC, as well as problem-solving skills, clear thinking and memory.
In stronger doses, THC can also cause hallucinations and paranoia, however that depends on the person, as THC often heightens emotions the person already has. Nonetheless, these side effects of marijuana consumption have led to widespread worry about what the legalization of the drug will do to the roads and whether or not it will increase the number of people driving under the influence.
According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legal, the highest approval rating in the country in the past few decades. However, in Illinois, approval isn’t as high as in the rest of the country. According to a survey done by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization opposed to the legalization of marijuana, only 41 percent of Illinoisans support legalization, as reported in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Many smaller cities in Illinois have outright banned the sale of marijuana within city limits because of their opposition to the new legislation, cities like Marion and Naperville. In September 2019, Marion’s city council voted to opt out of marijuana sales because of worries that “kids will have greater access to marijuana, that it’s a gateway to other drugs and that police won’t be able to tell whether drivers are too high to be on the road,” according to Politico.
Despite worries like these, many young people across the country are in favor of widespread marijuana legalization. In an informal online survey of 13 people, nine people believed that the recreational legalization of marijuana was a good idea for Illinois. Of those nine, six were between the ages of 18-22. The study done by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of those aged 18 to 29 believe that marijuana should be legal as opposed to 48 percent of people ages 65+.
One such young person, Mikey Fine, a 20-year-old sophomore social work major at the University of Missouri, thinks that marijuana’s legalization in Illinois is a great idea and “a step in the right direction. While there’s obviously risks to drugs like marijuana, it makes no sense to punish people for doing it when legal substances like alcohol are just as, if not more dangerous,” Fine said.
Recreational marijuana is currently legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia and is medicinally legal with reduced criminal charges in 10 states, according to Disa Global Solutions. Other states that have made marijuana fully legal in recent years have seen interesting results in the community after the legalization.
For example, Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. A report published by the state’s criminal justice division in October 2018 found that after legalizing marijuana recreationally, the high school graduation rate rose “from a 10-year low point of 72 percent in the 2009-2010 school year to 79 percent in the 2016-2017 school year.” In the same years, the high school dropout rate decreased from 3.1 percent to 2.3 percent.
One possible reason for these numbers is that many young people, such as 19-year-old Maggie Marren, a sophomore musical theatre major at Roosevelt University, use marijuana to help with their mental health. “I started [smoking marijuana] for fun. Long term, it’s helped a lot with my anxiety,” Marren said. “I find that I’m a less tense, anxious, irritable person when I’m regularly smoking pot.” She also tells the story of a friend who had terrible menstrual cramps that would not go away no matter what pain relievers she took. Becoming desperate, the friend began to smoke weed, and the cramps were gone instantly.
However, this use of marijuana at a young age might not be good news after all, despite its positive effects for some. In a study done by Duke University, researchers found that people who started using marijuana as adolescents had an 8-point drop in IQ points when using marijuana heavily and regularly. Those who only tried the drug a few times showed no decline, and those who never used weed showed a 1-point IQ increase. Since the human brain develops until the age of 25 or 26, using marijuana before that age can drastically affect a teen’s brain development. “We’ll probably have to do the same thing we do with alcohol. Alcohol is poison to the system, it’s what makes us drunk. That’s why we have age restrictions on when you can buy alcohol,” said Wilczynski. “We’re not legally saying that it’s a good thing for younger brains to be exposed to alcohol because of the impact it can have on a person. I think the same kind of thing is going to have to be done with marijuana.”
In the aforementioned informal online poll, respondents were asked to predict how they thought the marijuana legalization would affect Illinois’s high schools. The majority predicted that graduation rates and attendance would both rise. Three people believed that grades would also rise. One of the respondents believed that the new bill would have no effect on high schools at all.
As for the worries about the safety of the roads, Colorado’s state criminal justice division found that the total number of DUI citations decreased from 2014 to 2017, although marijuana citations increased in the same time frame. The division also found that the number of “fatalities where a driver tested positive for any cannabinoid increased from 11 percent of all fatalities in 2013 to 21 percent of all fatalities in 2017.”
Poll respondents were also asked to predict how they thought the legalization of marijuana would affect Illinois’s roads. The answers they gave were pretty mixed.
The majority of respondents predicted that the bill would lead to less DUIs and fewer crashes. Two respondents predicted that there would be no effect on the roads at all and that it would lead to more people driving high. One predicted that this would be because people were simply “trading one drug for another.”
However, according to Wilczynski, this is still cause for concern. He believes that we should treat marijuana and alcohol in the same way when it comes to driving. “You’re not going to be able to perceive what’s actually happening around you as you’re driving in actual real time because your sense of time will be altered or your ability to perceive movement,” Wilczynski said. “We do know that marijuana impairs things, it’s not just simply a drug that people take and then get calm.”
One thing that most everyone can agree on is that legalization will be good for the state financially. In Colorado in 2018, the state made about $267 million in taxes off of legal marijuana sales and has currently raked in almost $1.2 billion in total (as of October 2019) since the legalization in February 2014. Governor Pritzker has estimated that the marijuana taxes will bring in “$170 million in dispensary licensing fees in the fiscal year that started July 1,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The money will be going toward a range of programs in the state. The majority of the money will be put in the state’s general revenue fund and “ a program that benefits communities adversely affected by the drug war.” The rest will be going toward unpaid bills, the expungement initiative, public education, local prevention and law enforcement training programs, mental health and substance abuse services, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
A lot of people see this as an opportunity for Illinois to make its residents lives better. “This could give the states the power to do any number of good things for its people, whether that be tax cuts, making education more affordable or funding social programs,” Fine said. “If they handle it right, this has the potential to really make some lives better.”
A majority of poll respondents (61 percent) believed that the extra tax money should go toward education. Other top responses were health and hospitals (15 percent) and public welfare (seven percent). One 21-year-old respondent commented that the money should go toward “the communities hurt by the war on drugs.”
Although the details are still fuzzy, one thing is obvious right now: marijuana is going to be a big deal when it is finally legalized. Fine predicts that business will boom right after legalization. “It’ll probably be over saturated with weed products for a while, but after some time it will just be another part of life in Illinois,” Fine said.
Going forward, a lot of questions remain as to how this legislation will affect the state. “We’ll have to start coming up with other rules like ‘here’s how much can be in your system to get a DUI.’ I think there are going to be those kinds of impacts that we’ll have to pay attention to,” Wilczynski said. “There’s still a lot more research that needs to be done.”
For this project, I chose to do a before and after aspect by using information from Colorado's legalization and comparing it to people’s predictions about Illinois. At first, I was worried that it would be hard to find people my age who were engaged enough in the legalization to have opinions about it, and it ended up being a lot easier than I expected. It seemed like everyone I talked to had an opinion one way or the other about weed legalization and had their own predictions for what it would do. I wish I could have gotten a few more respondents on the survey I created for this project, I think it would have made the data I got a little bit stronger. I also wish I would have phrased a few of the questions differently and provided a different way for people to answer. With many of the questions, I wasn’t able to correctly represent the answers in a graph because the way I had set up the answers didn’t really give a specific conclusion.
I also wish I could’ve included more information from other states that legalized weed, but I wasn’t able to fit anymore information in without going over the page limit since there was so much I wanted to talk about. Plus, I think putting anymore statistics in this project would have made it a little overwhelming for readers.
Something that I found interesting while interviewing people is that a lot of young people see marijuana in the same way they do alcohol: they know it’s not the best for you and can be dangerous if you’re not smart about how you use it, but that it should still be legalized. I had never really seen weed thought of in that way before, but I think it's a sensible comparison to make.
I really liked the freedom I had with this project. Although Shonda would have us check in periodically, I never felt like I had someone looking over my shoulder the way I have in other classes. When I feel like I have a professor watching over me the whole time, I think it's harder – at least personally – to really explore and make the project what I want to be, especially if the focus changes over the course of working on it. Since this is the capstone class for the major, I think this amount of freedom is really great for students, especially since the pitch for the story was ours from the beginning. I think it allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do with it and, by doing so, show off all of the things I've learned during my time here.
I don’t think there is anything I would suggest doing differently in another class. I think this big of a project is a good final project for ending journalism students. Since all that we needed to turn in were drafts once a month, it meant that we had to be on top of getting the project done outside of class in order to make sure it all got done on time, which is how it is in real life. And I think it was a good idea to have us craft our own aspects of the subject we wanted to focus on, so that it was our project from start to finish.