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National Editorial & Columnists

EDITORIALS ELSEWHERE: Turn the clock off on legalization

Illinois should take the slow road on marijuana

The late English journalist Auberon Waugh, a sardonic conservative, once wrote, “It is the kindest thing one can possibly say of a politician that he changed nothing.” We wouldn’t endorse that sentiment on all matters. But it certainly applies to the General Assembly’s current deliberations on legalizing recreational marijuana.

Last year, Illinoisans elected a governor, J.B. Pritzker, who favored the idea. But what seems appealing as a concept sometimes turns out to be complicated. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, both Democrats, got behind the idea for their states. Like Pritzker, both work with Democratic-controlled legislatures.

But the effort in each place has stalled amid disputes over a variety of details. The New York Times reports that “even staunch proponents of legalization (are) seemingly resigned to waiting until next year.”

We suggest Illinois follow suit. The Tribune has previously endorsed the legalization of medical marijuana, which was approved here in 2013. We’re keeping an open mind on whether the state should take another big step by authorizing the sale, production and possession of pot.

But we’ve said the right approach for lawmakers was to take their time, thoroughly examine the experience of other states that have completely legalized cannabis and consider how to minimize unwanted consequences. Nothing we have seen in this legislative session in Springfield has diminished the attractions of the slow road.

One argument for legalization is that it would kill off the black market – channeling sales through regulated suppliers and yielding tax revenue to the state. But things haven’t gone as planned in California, which opened up legal commerce at the beginning of 2018. Experts say that the black market still accounts for up to 80 percent of sales.

That means criminals stay in business and the state doesn’t get all its expected money. Avoiding such pitfalls is a challenge that Illinois ought to tackle before it legalizes recreational pot, not after.

On Thursday, hundreds of people rallied at the Capitol to demand that 25 percent of revenues go to communities with an outsized share of low-level drug convictions. Law enforcement agencies argue that if cannabis is allowed, they should get a cut to deal with the safety problems it may create.

How to divvy up the revenue is a question with no obvious answer, particularly in a state with such severe fiscal problems as Illinois has. Another sticking point is whether to allow home growing of cannabis for nonmedical use, which police fear could facilitate illegal production.

Our elected representatives shouldn’t act in haste when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake – or when the health of their constituents is involved. If they attach an urgency to particular concerns, such as expunging the criminal records of minor offenders, they can pass legislation addressing them individually. Not everything has to be done at once.

It’s sometimes important for legislators to act quickly. This is one of those cases where it’s more important to act wisely – however long it takes.

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