SPRINGFIELD — Proposed plans for the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Illinois have shifted from "when" to "how" — but Bloomington-Normal's state legislators continue to have big questions.

Two key Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, have been meeting with interest groups ahead of the legislative session that begins in January. Both have worked on the issue for years — sometimes with State Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican who's on board.

Although studies have reached differing conclusions on the impact legalization has on usage rates, advocates contend it stays about the same — those who used the drug before it was legal are the ones using it after legalization.

"You see some decreases among youth because you're cutting off their access. The guy slinging weed on the corner in my neighborhood, I've never seen him 'card,' not once," Cassidy said. "And you see slight increase in people over 50 because their knees hurt."

The Steans-Cassidy plan would allow Illinois residents to purchase and possess 30 grams of marijuana for recreational use. Non-residents would be allowed 15 grams.

Law enforcement agencies remain opposed, fearing the law would allow for unregulated home cultivation, increase police officers' difficulty in recognizing marijuana impairment in motorists and not require dosages on labels in the case of edible products. They also disagree with Cassidy's assessment that young people wouldn't have the same access.

"People are saying this (legalization) is inevitable because of the changes in the Legislature and the governor's chair, and it's clever on the part of the sponsors to keep repeating that in the hopes that people will believe it," said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

Barickman is among those who believe legalization is inevitable and hope to influence how it happens. He noted that some issues, like whether dosages will appear on edible products, are concerning to him, but will be resolved by state agencies in the months after legislation is passed.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, another Bloomington Republican, said his caucus "will work with the Democrats on language to make whatever becomes law the best law it could be" — though he personally would prefer the issue be resolved at the federal level first.

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The unique serrated leaf marijuana plant grows at the Revolution Medical Marijuana Cultivation Center in 2016. 

Advocates say the state's medical cannabis program, adopted in 2014, is highly regarded nationally, and Steans said its tight regulations bode well for the adult-use program.

Dan Linn, executive director of the state chapter of the pro-cannabis lobbying group NORML, said cultivation centers have been frustrated because they have more capacity than is currently necessary for those receiving state-approved medical cannabis cards. But that doesn't mean they have the capacity, nor do the other 56 dispensaries, to meet recreational demand.

A year ago, Normal's The Green Solution dispensary had about 400 patients with the capacity for more, said officials with owner TGS National. Central Illinois also is home to the Revolution Cannabis-Delavan facility, a $23 million medical marijuana cultivation center.

While proponents think revenue from legalization would help police agencies better equip officers on the road to judge impaired motorists, Wojcicki said that currently, only a time-consuming blood test can verify marijuana use.

Studies released separately in October by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found higher rates of traffic accidents in states that have legalized recreational pot.

"The question is whether there's a direct correlation between legalization and traffic accidents," said Barickman. "If there's not a change in usage, you wouldn't anticipate seeing changes in the problems."

However, Barickman agrees with State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, that testing for marijuana-related impairment remains a problem. He points to an experimental saliva test and additional funding that could go to law enforcement to deal with issues related to recreational marijuana.

"I have a hesitation with the enforcement, testing and workplace environment, and public safety on the streets," said Brady, a former county coroner who said he would not support the legislation in its current form. "I don't believe anyone has a clear answer to those areas."

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Contact Derek Beigh at (309) 820-3234. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_beigh


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