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Illinois Rings in New Year with First Day of Recreational Marijuana Sales

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kinds of marijuana in containers | Illinois Rings in New Year with First Day of Recreational Marijuana Sales | Featured
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By Robert McCoppin, Chicago Tribune

When Prohibition ended in 1933, allowing alcohol to be sold legally again, customers packed bars six-deep, and the Chicago Tribune declared the end of “machine gun murders, prohibition bribery, and poison booze.”

Likewise, with Illinois’ prohibition on marijuana ending on New Year’s Day, advocates welcome it as a way to reduce funding of criminal cartels, disproportionate jailing of minorities and consumption of contaminated cannabis. And people will celebrate by getting high, despite warnings from medical groups and law enforcement of potential dire consequences.

“We’re excited for this historic day,” said Michael Mandera, manager of The Herbal Care Center dispensary in Chicago. “It’s definitely going to be a positive, inspiring mood here.”

Sales of marijuana will begin throughout Illinois as early as 6 a.m. Wednesday at 37 state-licensed stores that previously sold only medical cannabis. State regulators just gave the go-ahead Tuesday for nine of those shops, including several in the south and southwest suburbs. Many other suburbs opted to prohibit local sales but cannot prohibit the private use or possession of up to 30 grams of dried, smokeable plant material, five grams of concentrates or 500 milligrams of edibles.

The city of Chicago has also allowed sales to begin despite a last-ditch attempt by black aldermen to delay the opening to increase minority participation.

Marijuana use will remain illegal in public, such as in parks, schools, public transportation or on the street, as well as in motor vehicles or near minors.

To prepare for the big day, owners have been renovating and expanding their growing warehouses and retail stores to prepare for the expected crowds. The Herbal Care Center, for one, more than doubled its capacity from six to 13 cash registers. Workers there will take guests’ names and text them when they can be served, with valet parking, a heated tent and free hot coffee and cocoa for those waiting.

Other stores will have food trucks and entertainment or have arranged with neighboring cafes, bars and restaurants to stay open on New Year’s Day. Dispensaries are required to keep a one-month supply of pot on hand for medical customers — who in many cases can pre-order online and skip the lines.

While cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, its legalization in Illinois reflects a long evolution in public attitudes. It was effectively outlawed nationwide in 1937 and classified federally in 1970 as having no medical use and high potential for abuse, on the same level as heroin and LSD.

Since then, research has found that marijuana is far less addictive than many other drugs, does not lead to fatal overdoses and can help treat pain, nausea and epilepsy. State approval of medical marijuana, starting with California in 1996 and including Illinois in 2013, paved the way for broader acceptance, with polls showing two-thirds of Americans now support legalization.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational use of cannabis. Illinois became the 11th state in 2019 to do so, though the first to allow commercial sales through legislation, not by voter referendum.

Beyond legalization, the law also provides for wiping clean the records of people with low-level cannabis convictions. Gov. J.B. Pritzker did just that Tuesday, pardoning some 11,000 people. The law also provides for favoritism and lower costs in licensing of marijuana businesses for people who had such convictions or who lived in areas disproportionately hurt by the war on drugs.

Downstate, some towns have banned cannabis businesses, though they cannot prohibit possession or use. Springfield will allow recreational sales at its only medical cannabis shop, HCI Alternatives, located about a block from the old state capitol and two blocks from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Its city council is also expected to vote in January to allow people to consume marijuana in the shop.

Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder explained that since the city will have to deal with any consequences of legalization, it should collect the 3% local sales tax, on top of state taxes ranging from 10% to 25%. The lack of problems with the medical dispensary took the unknown out of the equation, he said.

“It’s like cigarettes, it’s harmful,” he said. “If you want to have your fun, go ahead. But we have to educate people, especially minors, on the side effects.”

With part of the estimated $57 million to be generated by cannabis taxes and fees in the first half year, the state will mount a public education campaign about the effects of the drug.

The World Health Organization has warned that short-term use of marijuana can impair cognition and driving while long-term use is associated with dependence, mental health problems and poorer outcomes at school and work.

States that have legalized recreational use have seen increases in car crashes — including fatal ones — in which drivers tested positive for cannabis use, though the drug stays in the system so long that doesn’t prove impairment. Police have no approved chemical measure of impairment but say they’ll be on the lookout for increases in impaired driving.

Health officials in particular warn against marijuana use by pregnant and breastfeeding mothers as well as by adolescents, who are particularly vulnerable to dependence and harm in brain development. States with legal pot have historically higher rates of usage among minors but generally have not reported big increases in youth use after legalization.

States with legal weed have also seen a spike in hospital visits for overdoses, often for extreme anxiety. Advocates urge consumers to start slowly with low doses and wait to feel effects that may take an hour or two to kick in for edibles.

Opponents like Kevin Sabet, president of the non-profit Smart Approaches to Marijuana, warned that legalization is a big mistake.

“As Illinois moves forward in this unfortunate, reckless experiment, we can expect to see continued harms to health, safety, and social justice,” he wrote in an email.

One group that was instrumental in the early days of marijuana advocacy was the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. Dan Linn, its long-time Illinois executive director, stepped down recently and is now general manager of Maribis, which operates cannabis dispensaries in Chicago and Springfield, but will avoid the potential chaos on New Year’s Day by starting its recreational sales later in the year.

He predicts stores will sell out of smokeable weed within hours — not so edibles and concentrates — but that won’t lessen the celebrations amid this “start of a new era of freedom and liberty.”

“I’d imagine the large amount of people already consuming illegally will be consuming even if there’s no product on the shelves,” he said.

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