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Local Column

Olson: What to tax next? How about pot

So the election is over and now our state’s lawmakers presumably will set to figuring out what to do about Illinois’ sorry financial state.

In case you’d forgotten, Illinois is operating under a “stopgap” budget that expires at the end of the year. There’s a budget shortfall of almost $8 billion and it seems there’s almost certainly going to be an income tax hike, along with who knows what other new fees and budget cuts.

A suggestion sure to be ignored: Let’s legalize marijuana and tax that, rather than keeping a thriving black market with a random tax on whoever is caught with pot.

After Tuesday’s voting, marijuana is or will be legal in eight states with more than 20 percent of the country’s population, including the entire West Coast.

Here, we’re still taking baby steps. In July, Illinois lawmakers approved and Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a new law that made possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less a civil rather than a criminal offense. The new law set a legal standard for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, for driving (previously there was zero tolerance.)

The law set the fine for possession at $200 (at the request of Rauner, who objected to an earlier proposal of $125), but it also gave individual communities the power to set fines wherever they pleased.

So in DeKalb, you can be fined $350 if caught with a small amount of pot, unless you want your day in court, in which case the fine would be $750 if you’re found guilty.

The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office proposes a local fine in line with the state’s $200, but will also tow your vehicle if the marijuana is found during a traffic stop – and that will cost another $300, plus, now you’ve got no wheels.

In Crystal Lake, they’ll fine you $300 to $500 for a first offense, and then $600 to $1,000 for a second, and $1,000 to $2,000 for a third.

But none of them will have their officers take pot smokers to jail.  (Some people probably would be better able to spend a night in jail than pay a $2,000 fine, but I digress.)

Yes, there’s an easy way to avoid getting sucked into this arbitrary system – don’t smoke marijuana, or at least don’t get caught with it.

But this is a substance clearly headed for legalization. Our state’s voters are owed at least an advisory referendum, or better yet, representatives acting on their behalf to end the prohibition at a future date.

Marijuana taxes wouldn’t solve a multibillion budget problem, but the millions they could generate would be money that we wouldn’t pay through other taxes on our property, vehicles and purchases.

It also could create a new cash crop for farmers and new opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Legalization is the fairer way to do this – it would make more people who use marijuana pay for the burden that the substance places on society, rather assessing steep fees on the random people who get caught.

Illinois is in a dire financial situation, and this is a social change whose time has come.

• Eric Olson is editor of 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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