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Local Column

Olson: Marijuana businesses will become normal

Daily Chronicle Editor Eric Olson
Daily Chronicle Editor Eric Olson

I visited my brother and his family in Oregon in September 2016, a little more than a year after the state’s ballot measure legalizing marijuana took effect.

One of his neighbors already had a huge bush of the stuff growing in their back yard, and it seemed like the smell of it was on the wind everywhere we traveled in the western part of the state.

It seemed very Wild West to a visitor from a prohibition state, but most people in Oregon were used to it. Marijuana was legal and out in the open, some people used it, some didn’t, and life went on. Every now and again we'd wind up behind a car driving really slow, but it's hard to tell if that was because they were taking in the scenery or partaking in the greenery.

Pot prohibition ends in Illinois on Jan. 1, when state law will allow marijuana sales to and use by adults over 21. It also will allows communities to decide if they want to prohibit the sale of cannabis – the preferred industry term – or permit it and impose a local sales tax of up to 3%. This is a good provision.

The smart move for local governments is probably to allow it, with regulations that fit with the community. At least that way there's a chance of keeping local control over how the product is distributed and advertised, and reaping the tax benefits.

The debate on legalization is over: It's happening, and most people wanted it to happen. There’s a market for marijuana, and people are going to seek it out.

Regardless if marijuana is sold in a community or not, there will be associated costs. Unless you're in an isolated area, chances are there will be a place somewhere nearby selling marijuana, and customers will beat a path to their door. (Illinois is counting on it, in fact: They're expecting to raise $500 to $700 million in tax revenue from taxing pot.)

In places including DeKalb, Elburn, and South Elgin, leaders all seem interested in permitting at least one dispensary. They're not encouraging people to smoke pot, any more than they're encouraging people to get drunk when they approve a liquor license. They're just acknowledging the reality that people are going to do these things.

Leaders in other communities, including Naperville, Batavia, and Bolingbrook, have said no to allowing the sale of the drug. Many others still are studying the issue.

It's good they can say no. It just might not last.

The recreational marijuana rollout will probably unfold similar to video gambling, which also was banned in many places when it was legalized in 2009. The first machines went live in 2012, and over time, many communities that once banned it changed their minds. (Chicago is a notable exception, but they've been angling for a casino.)

In Crystal Lake, for example, a ban on the machines was lifted in 2016 after business owners complained that they were at a disadvantage because people were going to other communities to gamble.

There are now 30,000 of gambling machines in Illinois, with more on the way. We’ve become accustomed to seeing rows of video slots in taverns, gas stations, and restaurants. Some people play, some don’t, and life goes on.

Video gambling is legal, popular, and profitable. Come Jan. 1, pot will be, too.

Many local governments have big obligations to meet, including to their police and fire pensions. Police also say they need tools and training to spot marijuana-impaired drivers. Bans on marijuana sales may become harder to sustain when a local government finds itself in need of money.

I hope legal pot doesn't cause more problems than it solves. But banning its sale in a community won't make it go away – it will only lead people to buy it elsewhere and bring it into town. Taking control of this soon-to-be-legal product seems the more forward-looking choice at this point.

Yes, it will seem strange when businesses start selling a previously illegal drug. But as time passes, we'll probably become as accustomed to it as my relatives in Oregon.

Eric Olson is general manager at the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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