A public meeting on Tuesday night to gather opinions on what happens when recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Illinois showed several local people in favor of welcoming some cannabis-related businesses for gaining more tax revenue and jobs.
State legislation approved earlier this year will allow a variety of businesses for dispensing, growing, producing cannabis oils or other products, warehousing and transporting cannabis across Illinois. Local governments in Illinois can prohibit these businesses from coming to their communities or allow them and raise revenue through added sales taxes.
Many members of the audience spoke up for allowing some of the cannabis-related businesses to add dollars to the government ledger books and provide more jobs in Jasper County.
“Do you want to be this stubborn and lose the money from this?” asked Susan Lindley of Newton, who led off the public comment period with a battery of questions. Questions were addressed to Jasper County State’s Attorney Chad Miller, who was moderator for the meeting, Newton Mayor Mark Bolander, City Council member David Brown and Jasper County Board Chairman Ron Heltsley. There were also members of the council and county board in the audience because this was a public meeting with minutes taken.
Others said this was about jobs and elected officials should embrace the opportunity with proper regulation. Otherwise, they warned surrounding counties will allow those businesses and gain the money that Jasper County declined.
But one truck driver from Newton said law enforcement is faced with enough problems over substance abuse so why add to their troubles.
“I don’t feel this county does a good job of keeping drugs out of the county now. What are they going to do when you let them do whatever they want?” asked Gary Rubsam.
Newton resident Max Bunton spoke against cannabis-related business on moral grounds.
“No one has spoken about the moral part of this,” said Bunton, noting the belief that encouraging cannabis use is not acceptable in any community. “I don’t want to see that money.”
In response, Ryan Millsap, a nurse from Newton, referred to other attempts to control behavior that didn’t work.
“You had Prohibition and that didn’t stop drinking and now many people are smoking marijuana despite the law,” Millsap said.
“You cannot legislate moral behavior,” said Newton resident Dusty Wright.
These and other questions and comments came after Miller offered facts on what the cannabis statute will allow and what local government can or not do in response. He made it clear the law for recreational use of marijuana goes into effect next year and municipalities cannot reverse it. But one provision involves the responsibility of communities.
“They have passed what is called the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, which essentially ends the cannabis prohibition in Illinois,” Miller said. “And replaces it with a system of taxes and regulates cannabis for adults, 21 and older. In addition to legalizing possession and use of cannabis by adults, it expands the current medical marijuana licensing system; includes automatic expungement for certain cannabis offenses; and adds the ability of medical patients to grow at home. There is a licensing procedure for that.”
“You can add a 3 percent additional local sales tax on top of what you already tax. The additional 3 percent is allowed on medical marijuana, but you can go above 3 percent on recreational use cannabis,” Miller said.
“Local governments may opt out of the system by passing an ordinance prohibiting the establishment of cannabis dispensaries in their jurisdiction. They may also enact reasonable zoning restrictions related to licensed businesses.”
Miller noted the city of Newton has zoning and Jasper County government does not. The county’s jurisdiction would include all the unincorporated areas.
“Most of the villages in the county are incorporated and have their boards and would have to address this on their own. The only areas the county is concerned about are the unincorporated areas. The city is its own incorporated area. They have zoning and they would have to address this themselves, which is why both entities [city council and county board officials] are here and not just one,” Miller explained.
Nothing in the state legislation prohibits employers from adopting policies on cannabis use in the workplace, Miller said. Employers are not restricted from disciplining or terminating an employee for violation of an employment policy regarding a drug-free workplace.
The medical marijuana program started two years ago is now a permanent one, based on state legislation. “That program had setbacks or restrictions where those facilities could be in relation to the public. A new statute eliminated all the setbacks. There are currently no setbacks other than 1,500 feet apart from dispensaries.”
In addition, the state legislation has eased some of the rules on entering the medical marijuana program. In addition, now all counties with medical marijuana dispensaries can levy an additional sales tax to those transactions.
Miller said local governments may “opt out” of having any cannabis business located in their jurisdiction. But local government cannot prevent residents from the use, possession or home growing of cannabis as allowed by the state legislation taking effect in January.
The opting out is just about not allowing the cannabis-related businesses, Miller said. On recreational marijuana use, possession or growing, the governments cannot opt out on that, he said.
If a community decides to “opt in” on the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, it must decide on different issues. Setbacks is one example of local government responsibility.
“Local governments may establish setbacks related to locations of dispensaries, craft growers, cultivation centers, infuser businesses. So, the intent of the new legislation is basically to take out the mandatory setbacks and they put it on the individual, smaller governments and local municipalities to either zone or pass ordinances to have restrictions,” Miller said.
If a community does not opt out, set zoning or place setback restrictions, then cannabis-related businesses could locate wherever they want unless within 1,500 feet of an established dispensary, Miller explained.
Regarding law enforcement when recreational use becomes legal, any cannabis possession over 30 grams is still illegal.
“It is a little confusing when you say we’ve legalized cannabis in the state of Illinois because we haven’t because any possession over 30 grams is still a crime and will be prosecuted,” Miller said. “Also, how you transport the cannabis can be a crime. With illegal transportation of alcohol in a vehicle, you will have similar statutes on transport of recreational use cannabis,” the State’s Attorney explained.
Cannabis should be carried or transported in an odorless container or the container provided by the dispensary. Miller compared it to facing prosecution when carrying alcohol outside a retailer’s bag or the bottle being unsealed.
Another aspect of this cannabis legalization law is the Community College Pilot Program. That will allow the eight community college districts in Illinois to offer a plant handling college curriculum class. That will train employees for the growing industry in the Illinois. State funds will be provided to fund this specialty curriculum in the colleges. This is part of the potential job growth benefit from the new law.
Social use spaces were also explained. This part of the legislation would allow for businesses to permit the use, but not the sale, of cannabis products within their facilities. There was an important qualification on this provision relating to the state’s smoking ban in public places, Miller noted.
“We still have the smoke-free law. Illinois is still smoke free. So, bars, [restaurants] and other public places will not be allowed to have this because they are subject to the smoke-free laws. Really, it would be an opportunity to create things like a cigar lounge or a smoking club, or something like that. You can allow those things in your jurisdiction. Again, it would not be for the sales but the recreational use in a social use space,” Miller said.
The new law on marijuana use basically limits it to a person’s residence or private property as well as a neighbor’s residence if permitted by the owner.
Rubsam said he worries about the public use spaces. If he entered one unknowingly could he lose his job if he inhaled the marijuana smoke.
There were also questions on medical marijuana, drug testing, licensing, zoning relating to schools and several other subjects. But the meeting did produce what local elected officials hoped for: plenty of questions and opinions.
In fact, the interest from the meeting on Oct. 22 had officials schedule another meeting on the subject for 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 12 in the high school auditorium.
Heltsley encourages attendance from residents from across the county. He said this is not just an issue for Newton and believes some people outside the city might have thought it was.
The city and county hope to set a course of action on the issue before Jan. 1 when the marijuana law takes effect across the state.