The Great Marijuana Debate
Experts discuss ramifications of legalized pot
By Steve Metsch
Billed as “The Great Marijuana Debate,” a discussion by a panel of experts drew a standing room only crowd to the La Grange Village Hall.
Those in attendance were flooded with a steady flow of statistics and medical opinions which left some wondering what to make of efforts to legalize marijuana.
The goal of the debate, however, succeeded. And that was to get people talking about marijuana which, earlier in the day, was approved as an opiod alternative in legislation signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The panel was varied. It included politicians, doctors, counselors and clergy. Thom Serafin, founder and CEO of Serafin & Associates, Inc., was the moderator of the two-hour debate on Aug. 28.
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All agreed that the complex issue needs more review, although State Sen. Heather Steans (7thDistrict) has introduced a bill to legalize marijuana use for recreational purposes besides the currently medicinal usage.
An overflow crowd filled the La Grange Village Hall for the debate. Photo by Steve Metsch.
“My three kids thought it bizarre I’m sponsoring the legislation. I think it’s the right, sound public policy to be doing. Prohibition simply does not work,” Steans said.
State Rep. Jim Durkin, the Illinois House Minority Leader,said he “conditionally support the medical or compassionate use of marijuana .. to relieve individuals of chronic pain and stress.”
Durkin said much more research is needed before the state can consider legalization for recreational use.
Psychologist Aaron Weiner, director of addictions at Linden Oaks, is taking a more cautionary approach.
“We’re not talking about medical cannabis. We’re talking about creating a recreational market. There are lot of things going on right now that has not been researched. It really concerns me,” Weiner said.
“We already have decriminalization. Legalization and commercialization are two entirely different things. My biggest concern is creating a for-profit industry around this. As soon as you do that, things go off the rails,” Weiner said.
More supportive was the Rev. Al Sharp, executive director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, who thinks “the War on Drugs is a war against African-Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics.”
“Marijuana is the leverage to end the War on Drugs. Right now, the debate about marijuana – which I think will be over soon than we realize – freezes all other debate. You say you need more research, but you can’t get more research until it is legalized,” Sharp said.
A big challenge, panelists said, is how law enforcement officials will be able to determine is someone driving under the influence of marijuana. It’s not as easy as dealing with alcohol in the blood, Weiner said.
Chelsea Laliberte, executive director of Live4Lali, lost a brother, Alex, to a heroin overdose 10 years ago, said “humans are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain and have been using substances from the beginning ot feel better.”
“I want to learn from my colleagues and I want to learn from you,” she told the audience.
The sixth panel member, Will Jones, is a Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) Communications Outreach Associate. Jones lives in Washington, D.C., where, he said, “a liquor store is the closest store to my house in any direction.”
Convenience store windows are covered with ads for alcohol and tobacco products. “For people like myself who live in such communities, regulating marijuana like alcohol does not sound like a great idea,” Jones said.
The panel covered much ground in two hours. In the end, no concrete stance was agreed on. Some thought more research is needed. Not Sharp: “We’ve had that chance and research has been blocked.”
Weiner said “we have a lot of research, but the idea that we are somehow a post-scientific society, where the science doesn’t matter, is a dangerout precedent.”
He noted “we don’t have a 0.08 level for marijuana,” comparing it to the BAC or blood alcohol content that determines drunken driving.
Becky Russow, of La Grange Park, said that she approves of legalization.
“I do feel the War on Drugs was a war on the black and brown communities, so I do like the legalization of it, and the decriminalization. It needs to be legalized, regulated and taxed, but I don’t want to see it on (TV) commercials,” Russow said.
A former elementary school principal, Russow “picked up a lot of information tonight, so I’m going to do some research on it.” But she noted she doesn’t like pain pills she was prescribed for recent knee surgery. “I’d love to have something else that’s less additive.”
There was great discussion about whether marijuana can be addictive and how long it stays in the bloodstream.
With that in mind, several panel members touched on how police would be able to test for marijuana in a person’s blood, as they now can do for alcohol.
Rep. Jim Durkin, the Illinois House Minority Leader, is a former prosecutor for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. He said that a common misconception is that someone goes to prison for simple marijuana possession. That, he said, is not likely.
Jim Rosenberger, of La Grange, considered the debate “overall was very informative.”
“It’s such a complicated topic. There’s so many issues brought up. They kept talking about commercialization and I think, ultimately, that’s what’s going to drive (the legalization),” Rosenberger said.
He added that “it’s all about the money,” noting that marijuana will be legal in Canada in October.
“One of my old college buddies, who’s grown up to be an investor, told me to look at marijuana stocks. So, I bought $10,000 worth of a Canadian firm in July and it doubled in two weeks,” Rosenberger added.
While it’s commonly thought legalization of marijuana may help the state through taxes, Durkin said taxing it heavily would in no way solve Illinois’ budget woes.
Serafin, who deftly handled a dozen or so questions submitted by audience members, said there were twice as many turned in.
The League of Women’s Voters in the La Grange Area and the Coalition for a Drug Free Lyons Township sponsored the event.
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