David Hoppe

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:: Illinois goes to pot

Indiana gets a contact high

by David Hoppe

People in Indiana are so used to hearing about what a mess those Democrats have made for themselves across the border in Illinois that you may have missed the news about their medical marijuana legislation.

While the chuckle-heads in Indiana’s Statehouse were voting to use public dollars to send more students to private schools, forking over $100 million to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and giving tax breaks to Indiana’s gambling industry, Illinois legislators (in fairness, not exactly known for their perspicacity) managed to pass House Bill 1, proposing to make their state the 19th in the land where marijuana could be available to people suffering from a variety of health ailments.

All that’s required for pot dispensaries to open in our next-door neighbor is Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature. He says he’s “open-minded” about the bill, which most people understand as meaning he’ll go ahead and sign it into law.

Sixty-three percent of Illinois voters have indicated they support House Bill 1, which has also received backing from a coalition of Illinois physicians.

If and when the Illinois bill goes through, it will mean that two of Indiana’s neighboring states (Michigan approved medical marijuana in 2008) have legalized pot for the sake of citizens’ health. Our neighbors to the east and south, Ohio and Kentucky, both have medical marijuana bills pending.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, moves are being made to actually make marijuana penalties harsher. A Senate committee in the most recent session voted, at the behest of Gov. Mike Pence, to include moving possession of between about one-third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana from the highest-level misdemeanor to the lowest-level felony, with a prison sentence between six months and 2.5 years.

When it comes to hearing the drumbeat of history, Indiana wears earmuffs.

All of these marijuana-related events need to be understood within the context of what’s happening in yet another state, Colorado. On May 28, the governor there, John Hickenlooper, signed into law measures making the recreational use of marijuana legal. Included in this legislation were blood-level limits for motorists and setting up a voter referendum to impose a tax on the non-medical sale of pot. Reuters reported that Colorado House of Representatives Majority Leader Dan Pabon said the legislation reflected “the will of the voters.”

Retail marijuana stores are expected to open in Colorado next year. If that tax referendum goes through, there will be a 15 percent excise tax and an additional 10 percent sales tax on marijuana sales. Out-of-staters, by the way, can only purchase a quarter ounce.

States like Colorado (Washington state has also approved legalization for recreational use) appear to be setting the pace regarding the normalization of marijuana — not just for other states, but the federal government as well. The Justice Department has viewed the burgeoning medical marijuana scene with all the enthusiasm of a butcher at a tofu party. Federal agents have made life difficult for many pot dispensaries, in spite of an Obama administration memo suggesting the feds not aggressively challenge state laws. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver said the Justice Department was mulling over what its response would be to legalization.

Good luck with that.

So far, Colorado’s marijuana story appears, in spite of a few bumps here and there, to be exemplary. That state adopted medical marijuana in 2009. Although people freely admit they were unprepared to deal with — or, for that matter, take full advantage of — everything involved in regulating and taxing a previously prohibited substance, they seem to have gotten their act together.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, in the three years since regulations took effect in Colorado, sales of therapeutic pot have hit nearly $200 million. In 2012, state sales tax on the stuff generated $5.4 million; dispensary operators have paid the state another $10 million in application and licensing fees. The most successful of Colorado’s 479 registered retail dispensaries log annual sales greater than $3 million.

Oh, and acceptance of pot for health purposes has not spawned a Reefer Madness-like crime wave.

Colorado requires growers to raise their plants indoors, which has prompted a small boom in the reclamation of old warehouses. But the costs involved in getting started can be prohibitive for many, ahem, budding entrepreneurs. Obstacles to entry into the market include difficulties in securing loans and insurance. Taxes are high and many typical deductions are prohibited because marijuana is still considered a controlled substance at the federal level. One grower quoted in the Tribune article said she, along with a group of investors, put more than $3.5 million in a three-store company.

Illinois legislators borrowed heavily from Colorado in crafting their approach to medical marijuana. The Illinois law is considered to be one of the most restrictive in the nation, since it doesn’t allow prescriptions for existential ailments allowed in some other states, such as “chronic pain.”

But if Colorado is any indication, it seems likely that once Illinois opens the door to therapeutic pot, it won’t be long before citizens there realize that legalization is no big deal — and may even be a boon. Hoosiers, alas, may have to settle for a contact high.