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Legal Weed: What You Need To Know

Buying and using marijuana will be legal in Illinois as of January 1. We asked top state experts what that does and doesn’t mean, and compiled their answers in this Q&A.

Hear Sam Dunklau interview Maureen McKinney about this Q&A.

Toi Hutchinson is senior adviser to Gov. J.B. Pritzker on cannabis control. A former state senator from Olympia Fields, she was one of the main co-sponsors of House Bill 1438, the  legalization measure. She recently talked with NPR Illinois’ Maureen McKinney to spell out what happens when the legislation takes effect on January 1.

Senators Toi Hutchinson and Heather Steans celebrate after cannabis legislation passes the Senate.
Senators Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, (center) and Heather Steans, D-Chicago, (right) celebrate after cannabis legislation passes the Senate. Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

McKinney also talked with Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association; Dan Linn, the former executive director of the Illinois branch of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and general manager of the Maribus dispensaries in Chicago and Grandview, near Springfield; Todd  Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce; Kathleen Olivastro, regional director for Illinois Supply and Provisions, which has dispensaries in Collinsville and Springfield; and Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

HUTCHINSON: I would like folks to understand that this is happening in phases — it is a slow approach. And then on January 1, this is what the beginning of legalization will look like. We are committed to making sure that as this is rolled out, that is done in the most equity-centered way we can possibly have happen. And that will be a first in the country. So January 1 is the beginning. It’s not the end. It’s just the beginning.

MCKINNEY: In what forms will marijuana be sold?

HUTCHINSON: In all forms: the flower, edible, concentrate. You can’t have more than 30 grams as an adult over the age of 21 and the only people permitted to grow are medical patients.

MCKINNEY : Can you buy it online from other states where it is legal?

HUTCHINSON: No. You may not.

MCKINNEY: We got a question from someone in Tennessee — they want to know if there are special rules for people coming from out of state — how much they can buy, that sort of thing?

HUTCHINSON: There’s a smaller amount that you can buy if you are from out of state. That’s consistent with most other states that are illegal. In-state residents are up to 30 grams. [It is  half of that  for out-of- state individuals. For Illinois consumers,  that is 30 grams of cannabis flower, 5 grams of cannabis concentrate such as oils or dabs and 250 milligrams of THC in cannabis-infused products such as edibles or tinctures.]  

MCKINNEY: How many businesses are allowed and how many do you expect to open on January 1?

HUTCHINSON:  The original medical operators will be the first ones to be able to come online with recreational. Recreational has the potential for 110  licenses,  and we will know in short order pretty much how many of those are actually going to be let. That it’s  dependent upon which businesses apply to be allowed to do that. But we expect they will be open for business in multiple locations across the state on January 1.

MCKINNEY: What happens with other businesses that want licenses?  

HUTCHINSON: Applications are out right now. And the deadline for the in the first round of new licenses  is January 2, and then those will be awarded sometime between May and June.

MCKINNEY: Is demand expected to exceed availability? What is the expected cost of, say, a joint?

HUTCHINSON: We anticipate that what will happen in Illinois will be the same as what’s happened in every other state — that because the end of prohibition is exciting, and it’s historic, there’ll be a lot of interest and a lot of demand. And we do expect to see lines at multiple locations. I can’t tell you exactly how much indeed an individual product will cost.

LINN: At the outset, I think that there’s going to be significant issues with product availability. And as a result of that very limited supply, I would think, that the pricing could be significantly higher than people expect it to be, and, that, in turn, will take quite a while before we really eradicate the illegal cannabis market. I think that’s where you’ll start to see people who maybe get excited about legalization within the first month or two.

MCKINNEY: So, really high demand is expected. Can you give me a sense of that?

Workers at the HCI Alternatives dispensary in Springfield.
Workers at the HCI Alternatives dispensary in Springfield. The dispensary name was recently changed to Illinois Supply and Provisions. HCI Alterntives

LINN: Sure. So if you look at kind of general statistics of what percentage of the population consumes cannabis, you know, it’s somewhere between maybe 8 % and 13%. So if we went with just kind of an even number of 10% — and this isn’t necessarily everyday users, maybe like once a month or once every few months. You’re talking well over a million people in the state of Illinois. And that’s just for in-state residents. You add in the out-of-state tourists, and we could see a significant amount of people looking to purchase this product. And for comparative purposes, the current medical cannabis industry has about just under 90,000 patients in the program, of which maybe 50,000 or 60,000 are making purchases in any given month from the data that’s provided by the state. And even with those, say 60,000 patients making purchases, we’re already running into supply-side issues.

MCKINNEY: Even in the medical area?

LINN: Even in the medical area, and the law does specify that medical patients are going to get priority. If a store has recreational cannabis and they sell a lot of medical cannabis, then they’re going to have to move those recreational products back to the medical side of it. But  obviously we’ll see how that plays out in practice once we get into the next year here.

OLIVASTRO: What we do expect is demand to be high. And I don’t know if I can give you a specific. I would say double or triple, which is why we’ve put we’ve put processes in place so the medical product is protected, and we will always have product for the medical patients. We’re increasing our capability so that we can meet what we expect to be a very high demand on that adult recreational side. Could be double. Could be triple.

MCKINNEY: How does pricing compare between medical and recreational?

LINN: The pricing of the product should be relatively similar, but the taxation will be more. So right now you have a statewide 1% tax on medical cannabis products and the recreational cannabis  products, it’s going to be dependent on the potency, but at least in the potential world of taxation, if the most potent products are taxed at the highest rate possible at the local level, you could see somewhere around a 30% to 40% effective tax rate on some of these products.

MCKINNEY: Do you know what  a joint,  for instance, might cost for recreational as opposed to medical use?

LINN:  That would definitely depend on the size of the joint. But, for the sake of the conversation, a one gram joint on the recreational market would probably cost somewhere between $15  and $20. I would guess. You may find it a little bit cheaper or a little bit more expensive depending on the specific strain and cultivator.

Cannabis plant
Brent Levin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

MCKINNEY: An ounce (the equivalent of about the maximum 30 grams adults are allowed to possess)?

LINN: An ounce would also be dependent on the cultivator and the potency and the specific strain. But I would guess that the cheapest you would find this in the recreational market is maybe $350. And the highest, you know, you could see  $500 or $600 an ounce in the very beginning of this.

MCKINNEY: And is that  significantly higher than the legal market and the underground market that currently exists?    

LINN: I mean, most people in the illegal market, they can score an ounce of fairly high-quality cannabis for 250 bucks. Okay, maybe $300.

MCKINNEY:  And how does it compare to medical?

LINN: It depends on who you ask. I think that there’s definitely people who have access to high-quality cannabis. The big difference is that none of that illegal cannabis has gone through the testing and quality controls that the legal products will have gone through. But that being said, this is a market that has existed for decades illegally. There’s plenty of people in the traditional market as they call it, who are happy and satisfied with the producers and distributors that they’re already making these purchases from. And as they walk into a store and see the prices at 20 or 30%, higher than what they’re already paying, they may choose to keep their business in that illegal sector.

MCKINNEY: And do you know what’s happened in other states in terms of demand and pricing, where it’s been legalized for a while?

LINN: Over time, the pricing does go down. But generally speaking, when they first roll out their programs, there’s similar supply-side issues with long wait times, high prices.  But over time, as that market starts to move closer towards equilibrium and having the supply meet the demand, that pricing keeps people in the legal market.

MCKINNEY: Where will you be able to smoke marijuana in public — and are there exceptions?

HUTCHINSON: There is no public consumption.

MCKINNEY: And so it’s just private residences and that sort of thing where it’s allowed?

HUTCHINSON: Essentially, you will not be able to openly consume outdoors and in public any more than you can alcohol. So, you have to be in an establishment so there will be some dispensaries that will be allowed to have a consumption area and there will be existing retail tobacco stores along the lines of hookah lounges and cigar bars that will also be able to add marijuana to their ability to consume.   There are a lot of worries about people walking through big huge puffs of smoke outside and that is not allowed. There is no public consumption drawn into the bill.

MCKINNEY: Are there still state penalties?

HUTCHINSON: If you’re over the legally allowed limit, and if you are under age, so this is only legalized for people over the age of 21. And so there are penalties for underage consumption and there are penalties for (possession) over the  legally allowed limit. This is still illegal federally. So, on federal property, there can still be absolute bars to being able to consume in those places.  We have to be very wary. So yes, this is for the most part at this stage right now in the beginning, private. [Under the law, minors cannot be incarcerated for marijuana convictions.]

MCKINNEY: Will cities be able to enforce municipal penalties for violations?

HUTCHINSON: I mean, municipalities have zoning authority. So that means when and where certain locations  are in operation, and so to the extent that there might be people who violate individual municipal or ordinances or zoning rules there. They have every right to enforce those things. They can’t go beyond what happens at the state level, though.

MCKINNEY: Can public colleges make their own prohibitions for on-campus use?

HUTCHINSON: Yes, they can because they are federally funded.

MCKINNEY: Must sales be in cash because of the federal prohibition?

HUTCHINSON: Right now there’s no universal banking solutions. So yes, the majority of these transactions happen using cash. There’s a bill pending in Congress right now that has passed in the House,  but has not yet passed the Senate. And there are multiple states that have tried to figure out what banking solutions can be. There are entities who figured out how to use bank card things. But yeah, that is absolutely an issue across the country.

MCKINNEY: What concerns have you heard from businesses and law enforcement?

HUTCHINSON: They run the gamut.  I mean, most people have public health concerns. And that’s really the way we tend to look at these things is that while we are beginning to change the way legalization looks in Illinois, we’re taking a very, very strong policy stance that this is an issue for public  health, not an issue for the criminal justice system. So, after 80 years of prohibition and certain communities being over targeted and overpoliced — the failed war on drugs — all of the concerns and issues that people have about underage use, or the safety of the products that are consumed, or whether or not we’ll be able to handle in traffic issues, and all of those things are better held from a policy standpoint that has public health in mind, rather than criminalization in mind. So we usually take each one of those issues and we put good data and good science behind it so we can do all we possibly can to keep our communities safe and to keep our children away from the things that we don’t think they should be participating in.

WOJCICKI:  First of all, we think that that people need to be educated about what they can do and cannot do. People are not allowed to smoke marijuana in their cars while they’re driving or as passengers  And any marijuana that they have in their car must be in what is called a shield, a colorless, odorless container. So ,(a user) can’t just put some marijuana in a baggie and put it in his coat pocket and carry it in his car – that would be against the law. When it comes to citizen education, I think people need to learn when the effect of the high takes place after consuming different types of marijuana products. For example, one of the things we’ve learned in other states is that people might eat a cookie or candy, or some other edible product that has marijuana in it, and they don’t feel that high right away. So they eat some more. And what they don’t understand is that that high may not get in for a couple of hours. And so they keep eating it and then end up getting sick, because they actually have way too much in their system. So, you know,  people will need to experiment with it to learn how it affects their system.

MCKINNEY: Is there any way for law enforcement officials to determine level of intoxication?

HUTCHINSON: Five years ago, when we did the medical program, we did come up with a state standard or what was considered inebriated as related to cannabis. Unfortunately, there’s no roadside test as of yet. But that is, again, something that is happening across the country. And I would remind folks we’ve had a medical cannabis program for five years, and really no significant traffic concerns in that population of folks. So, we recognize that this is a moving and changing area of the law. And it’s actually exciting to watch what’s about to come online. There are a number of different prototypes and testing things that are happening across the country. So, we expect that’s going to change the way law enforcement deals with this in traffic-related things. And so, we’re watching.

WOJCICKI: There is still no scientific standard of determining impairment by marijuana in a system.  There are different ways to test saliva, blood, urine, but that they all test slightly differently. And so we’re working with the Illinois State Police and the Illinois Sheriffs Association and others on what’s called the DUI task force, a new task force to come up with some standards that will be applied equally around the state. Right now, you can still cite a driver for driving under the influence. And there’s the field sobriety tests and so forth. And you can take a person and get a blood draw and test it.  And so there are ways to do that now and those ways will continue to be in effect after January 1, until there is sort of the marijuana equivalent of a breathalyzer which there is not right now.

MAISCH: Number one, we wanted to make it explicit that if you wanted to have a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis in your workplace, that you could do so without legal challenge. There are a lot of businesses, many, many businesses, where safety rules and even federal law require absolute drug-free workplaces. We believe this law maintains that guarantee.   We think that Illinois employers have the best protections of any state in the nation.

MCKINNEY Can companies still drug test employees and future employees?

HUTCHINSON: Yes. Drug testing is still allowed.

DENZLER: Nobody wants an impaired employee, whether a manufacturer or retailer or hospital, but this is particularly sensitive in the manufacturing sector because they can be working around machinery and equipment that could cause serious injuries, or even death, in certain instances. I think the most important thing for employers is their ability to protect their workplace and that they can maintain a safe and drug-free workplace. They can continue drug testing their employees and make sure that they are not impaired  whether it’s under alcohol or drugs — and the workplace extends beyond the factory walls. It could be the company car, you know, could be in the parking lot.

MCKINNEY: Why was it important to include a social justice component to the legislation and how does that come into play?

HUTCHINSON: Well, it comes into play in three different areas. One is how and who gets to participate in breaking into the industry, whether we’re able to diversify a very, very homogenous industry. It comes into play when we think about what we will do with the money from the point of sale. And as we took a very strong policy stance that we would really invest that money into communities that were hit the hardest during the war on drugs. And it also comes into play when we think about the fact that we are now legalizing an activity that for so long was illegal, and disproportionately impacted communities of color. So expungements and clearing people’s records so that they can be in a position to sign a lease or get a student loan or be able to check a box for a job application.  That’s really, really incredibly important in the passage of this historic equity-centered legislation. And it was done that way because we had a governor who believed in it, and we had bill sponsors and drafters who gave everything they possibly could to make sure that if we were going to normalize and legalize this activity, that you could not do that while at the same time not pay attention to the communities that it hurt the most, during prohibition. To think of it any other way would be fundamentally unfair. The one had to go with the other.

MCKINNEY: Are parolees treated the same way as other individuals in terms of use?

HUTCHINSON: One, I think the most important thing that we’re concentrating on is expunging and sealing records that are directly related to cannabis offenses. So to the extent that you’re on parole for something else, there are specific guidelines as to what behaviors you can engage in and what you cannot. But the goal here is to make sure that while we’re normalizing and legalizing the use of cannabis, that we’re also expunging and clearing the records for people who were convicted of the same thing and had excessive fines or tickets or just negative outcomes that they’ve had to still contend with before legalization.

MCKINNEY: How is the revenue from the sales tax distributed?

HUTCHINSON: Twenty-five percent will be directed towards communities that were just unfortunately impacted by the war on drugs. And that’s for everything from education to addiction, to mental health services, job training. We tried to look at this from a very, very comprehensive standpoint. We wanted to create job opportunities and economic development, as well as reinvest and rebuild and renew communities that were hit the hardest. So it’s designed to make sure that while we do this, that the emphasis was more on social equity and criminal-justice reform than it was on the money. The money then needs to be put to the same good use.

Copyright 2019 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.
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