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Video: GLT Panel Flags Issues In Marijuana Legalization Plan

Jeff Smudde
From left, panelists John Walsh, Linda Foster, Brendan Bukalski, Ralph Weisheit, and moderator Charlie Schlenker at Tuesday's GLT Community Conversation at Illinois State University.

A panel of experts flagged several issues Tuesday in the current proposal to legalize marijuana in Illinois, from expungement of criminal records to employers who want drug-free workplaces.

“It’s an imperfect (proposal) but it’s a good start,” said defense attorney Brendan Bukalski, one of four panelists at Tuesday’s GLT Community Conversation. “But I think it’s an absolutely necessary thing.”

Video: Watch Tuesday's night event.

The proposal supported by Gov. JB Pritzker contains processes for people who were previously convicted of pot-related crimes to have their records expunged. But that automatic expungement process will not be as sweeping as it’s been advertised, said Bukalski, with Johnson Law Group.

That’s because the expungement process does not apply to individuals with misdemeanor or Class 4 felony violations that were accompanied by charges other than a qualifying offense, like having drug paraphernalia. That would apply to a lot of past offenders, Bukalski said. 

“There’s serious concern about the expungement process,” he said. 

Linda Foster
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Linda Foster, president of the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP, said she is opposed to the current proposal.

The Illinois NAACP has come out in opposition to legalization. Linda Foster, president of the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP, said she too is opposed to the current proposal.

Some parts of the plan are good, Foster said, but others are concerning. She said it doesn’t do enough to guarantee black and brown Illinoisans won’t continue to be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. The drug war has already taken its toll, she said, with African Americans three times as likely to be arrested for possession in recent years. 

“Until there is language that clearly defines what is acceptable, what is legal, then there’s always going to be that concern about what we call ‘discretionary’ rules that do not favor African Americans,” Foster said. “We believe there’s a lot more than needs to go into this law.”

The local business community is split on legalization, said John Walsh, government and public affairs manager for the McLean County Chamber of Commerce. He said his members are happy the proposal would allow employers to continue establishing their own drug policies for workers.

“Overall, our membership is split down the middle but with reason for optimism,” he said.

One concern, Walsh said, is that only 10% of the revenue from Illinois’ marijuana program would be earmarked for the state’s backlog of unpaid bills. Other revenue would go into the state’s general revenue fund, mental health and substance abuse services, law enforcement, and other programs.

Ralph speaks
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Illinois State University Distinguished Professor of Criminal Justice Ralph Weisheit, center, during Tuesday's event.

“That's an area that's going to remain a concern for us,” Walsh said. 

A key question is, will legalization lead to more marijuana use, beyond what’s already happening?

Illinois State University Distinguished Professor of Criminal Justice Ralph Weisheit said data from Colorado shows use by young people actually fell slightly after legalization in 2014. Adult use grew but it wasn’t dramatic, he said.

It’s all about tradeoffs, he said.

“The truth is, we don’t know for sure,” Weisheit said. “It seems likely those percentages will go up over time (in Illinois) as the drug becomes more accepted. But the short-term answer seems to be, the increases aren’t that dramatic.” 

Tuesday’s event was the fourth in GLT’s award-winning Community Conversations series. It was moderated by GLT News Director Charlie Schlenker. The series is made possible by the Alice and Fannie Fell Trust at Illinois State University.

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.