Editor’s note: Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois and the director of the Labor Education Program in Chicago. Bruno, who co-wrote a paper on the potential financial impact of legalizing marijuana, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the new law’s possible benefits for the state of Illinois.
For a state that’s swimming in red ink, what are the financial rewards to legalizing marijuana?
The state of Illinois is in need of additional revenue. Following the 736-day budget impasse from summer 2015 to summer 2017, the state still has a $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills and more than $130 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. According to our paper, by legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana, we estimate $1.6 billion of recreational marijuana would be sold in the state, in part due to regional tourism. Illinois could generate around $525 million in new tax revenue, create more than 23,000 new jobs at more than 2,600 businesses, boost the Illinois economy by $1 billion annually, and reduce law enforcement and incarceration costs.
With those new tax revenues, Illinois could fund additional pension payments while making vital public investments in public education, road and transportation construction projects, and drug treatment and prevention programs.
Legalizing, regulating and taxing recreational marijuana would reduce costs to taxpayers, spur economic activity, create jobs and shrink the black market. While it wouldn’t totally solve Illinois’ fiscal issues, it would certainly improve the state’s budget situation and credit rating outlook.
Isn’t this a somewhat extreme solution to budgetary problems?
The legalization of recreational marijuana isn’t an extreme act. There’s broad bipartisan support for decriminalizing marijuana use in the state of Illinois. According to our paper, 66% of registered voters in Illinois support legalizing marijuana. This includes 76% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans. And that follows a trend across the country.
It’s still, of course, a minority of states that have actually decriminalized marijuana use, but it’s now mainstream, and it follows the evolution where the public has come to appreciate that marijuana use is not the same as other highly regulated and restricted drugs like heroin and cocaine. The medical cannabis experience also has helped to change minds. There’s research that shows real benefits of medical marijuana for people with chronic pain.
The explosion of opioid addiction, which has ravaged families and communities throughout the U.S., also has contributed. Legal marijuana reduces opioid use. So it’s a way in which we can get at a larger epidemic.
What are the risks to communities in legalizing marijuana?
The addiction risks of marijuana appear to be similar to alcohol, and to my knowledge there’s no compelling evidence that it’s a gateway drug to harder narcotics. But there’s certainly been a terrible cost to communities – largely communities of color – due to the extreme criminalization of possession of even small amounts of marijuana. We’ve thrown so many people in jail because of the strict, no-nonsense, law-and-order reforms of the 1980s and the war on drugs. There certainly are drugs that will never be legalized that we need to keep off the streets, but this big net captured everything, including marijuana. So these people are arrested, have a criminal record and then have trouble applying for certain types of jobs because of a minor possession charge. It ends up costing society on the front end, in terms of the costs to prosecute and imprison people, but it also destroys a life and family for a generation or more.
In this particular case, there is a disproportionate number of black men who are affected. And we’re now in a time when we’re rethinking the whole law enforcement approach of the 1980s. We’re thinking more in terms of how we get people a fresh start.
How is the Illinois law different from other states?
The new law goes to great lengths to allow for people convicted of possession of under 30 grams prior to legalization to have their records expunged. You’ve got decriminalization, expungement and money to help start-ups for minority-owned dispensaries, and a strategic sense of where you should place these businesses so communities of color don’t get locked out of this new economic opportunity.
That’s much different than any other marijuana-legalization law. Illinois didn’t just replicate Michigan, Colorado or Washington and simply declare that it’s decriminalized. Illinois went further to really invest in the industry with an eye on equity. We’ll see how it all turns out, but the bill itself is exceptional.
Historically, the costs of law enforcement and corrections associated with marijuana possession have been very high in Illinois. By fully legalizing recreational marijuana, Illinois taxpayers will save millions annually in reduced incarceration costs, law enforcement spending and legal fees.