Is Illinois’ recent decision a sign that federal marijuana legalization is inevitable?

Illinois is on a progressive roll lately, and as part of that trajectory, the state became the 11th since 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana. The bill, passed May 31st, means that beginning January 1st of 2020 Illinois residents of legal age can possess and partake in marijuana for personal use, establishing the state amongst the leaders in the marijuana legalization movement. This state-by-state process of legalization has been a growing trend in marijuana news—no pun intended.

It came as a surprise to some that Illinois passed this legislation ahead of east coast states like New York or New Jersey, as indicated in a Forbes piece cleverly titled, Marijuana Legalization Leader: Illinois Just Made New York and New Jersey Look Like Dorks. But others see Illinois’ move as an indicator that we are getting very close to acceptance of federal marijuana legalization because Illinois is considered to be part of America’s heartland. But the fact is, several Midwestern states will be making the leap into marijuana legalization according to the Vice article, The Midwest Is About to Have a Weed Revolution.

Illinois’ governor Pritzker, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, said, “This will have a transformational impact on our state, creating opportunity in the communities that need it most and giving so many a second chance.”

In the same piece, Steve Hawkins, the director of the Marijuana Policy Project was quoted as saying “heartland states are clearly deciding that the time to end the prohibition of cannabis has come.”

All this is telling as to the future of legalization on a federal level. You have to think, if Midwestern states like Michigan have legalized cannabis use, or at least decriminalized it in Missouri’s case, others won’t be too long in following suit.

According to a piece from the Drug Policy Alliance on their site, titled Marijuana Legalization and Regulation, more than half the country is in favor of legalizing marijuana–2018 estimates claim 64% actually, including 51% of Republicans.

It’s not just citizens who are in favor of legalization. All but one of the 20 Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential bid support legalization of marijuana at federal level–the only hold out is Joe Biden. According to Business Insider, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker expressed his disappointment that marijuana legalization wasn’t a topic discussed in the first 2020 Democratic debate. Booker just happens to be one of those leading the charge for marijuana reform in the Senate and considers the ongoing prohibition of marijuana a national crisis.

Senator Booker and other 2020 presidential hopefuls aren’t alone in this view. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, Wyoming, Idaho, and South Dakota were the only states that didn’t have marijuana reform bills introduced in 2018. That makes those not actively pushing marijuana legalization in the very small minority.

What the movement for federal legalization has on its side

1. Successful examples

It’s hard to deny that marijuana reform will have a positive impact when the numbers show otherwise. Arrests and convictions are down drastically in states where marijuana is legal. According to a legalization status report on, Oregon alone saw a drop from 13,000 arrests and convictions in 2012 to fewer than 1,000 in 2016.

2. Revenue

Often times it all comes down to the dollar when lawmakers consider reformation, and the fact that decriminalization will not only save money for states but generate revenue for their coffers as well is a major plus side to legalization. Which brings us to what states can do with that money.

3. Societal benefits

States are using this money for social good and the benefits are pretty obvious. From school funding to drug treatment programs, the revenue from legalized marijuana is contributing to positive change. Between 2015 and 2017, Colorado distributed $230 million to the Colorado Department of Education. Oregon has deposited $34 million into their state school fund so far and 20% of their state tax revenue is earmarked for substance abuse treatment. Washington State contributes 25% of tax revenue towards substance abuse treatment and distributes 55% of revenue to fund public health plans. These are just some of the many examples of how marijuana tax money is greatly benefitting society.

4. Social justice

Last but not least on the benefits list is social justice reform. Decriminalizing marijuana will lead to less inequality within the justice system towards minorities and the poor, who have historically been disproportionately negatively affected by tough marijuana laws.

See the full reports on this data here .

What it has against it

1. Political pressure

There are still larger barriers to legalization in the context of political pressure on politicians. They may feel that pressure everywhere, from their constituents to the organizations and corporations funding them and their campaigns. Marijuana legalization is still seen as a moral issue for many social conservatives.

2. Resistance to change

Not everyone everywhere is open to the idea of legalization. Yes, this is mostly coming from conservative strongholds in the south and certain Border States, but this resistance can’t be entirely discounted. Many people and politicians alike don’t want to move towards federal legalization because of how it may affect their own states.

In Idaho, for example, possession of over 3 oz is currently still a felony and the state has been slow to change. Even legalizing CBD (which doesn’t contain the psychoactive ingredient THC) has been met with resistance by the governors past and present.

Rebecca Schroeder of Coeur d’ Alene, a northern Idaho city that borders Washington State, told The Spokesman-Review she doesn’t see Idaho moving towards legalization any time soon. She ran for a state legislature position last fall and found herself unable to get endorsement even from the very organizations that would benefit from legalization, such as the Idaho Education Association.

Yet, despite resistance from Idaho and other states, things seem to be heading towards larger change. Even conservative Utah has legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. And the states that are either decriminalizing marijuana or allowing its regulated medical use are growing in number.

Not all states are going full-throttle like Illinois with its expansive reform, but incremental change can lead to broader progress, as was the case with California—the state first made marijuana legal for medical use and followed with full recreational legalization, albeit 20 years later.

Historically, progress toward legalization has been slow. The first ballot initiative to legalize cannabis was California’s 1972, Proposition 19 according to Wikipedia. It took over 40 years from first attempts to realizing recreational legalization in the state.

But if Illinois is any indication, we’ll be seeing continued state-by-state passage of recreational use laws in unexpected places. If socially conservative states like Utah and heartland standouts like Illinois and Michigan are moving towards reform, it can’t be too long before the last of those resisting it comes around.

Even if sweeping federal reform doesn’t happen immediately, there are several indications that bipartisan support is happening currently.

A marijuana news article in Rolling Stone covered what is being called the STATES act (Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States) that proposes to protect the states that have legalized marijuana from federal prosecution. The STATES act was introduced by and has the support of a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

This bill was reintroduced to Congress on April 4th, 2019 after a failed attempt to pass it in December of 2018, so there seems to be some real determination behind it. The support for the act keeps growing. Twelve governors signed a letter of support on June 8th of 2018 and the bill still has the support or co-sponsorship of 11 Senators, including Republican Jeff Flake and 2020 democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren along with 46 members of the House according to Wikipedia.

With a historical perspective in mind, growing bipartisan support and states like Illinois leading the way, legalization on a federal level seems inevitable. If it can be done in two heartland states, maybe Iowa is next. And as it is said about politics—As Iowa goes, so goes the country.

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