Poll: Most voters support legalizing, decriminalizing marijuana in Illinois

Kevin HoffmanReboot Illinois

Mar 27, 2017

Illinoisans appear to be warming up to the idea of legalizing marijuana for recreational use if it were to be regulated and taxed similar to alcohol, according to a new poll.

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale surveyed 1,000 voters across the state between March 4-11 and found support for recreational marijuana has increased by 21 percentage points since it conducted a similar poll in March 2016.

Two-thirds of voters said they would support the legalization of cannabis for recreational use if it’s regulated and taxed like alcohol, compared to nearly 31 percent who are opposed. Just one year ago, the Institute found 51 percent of respondents opposed the idea, while 45 percent said they were in favor.

Support for legalizing recreational pot was strongest among voters in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, where 80 percent and 79 percent of voters approve, respectively. While downstate voters were more mixed in their views, the majority, 63 percent, signaled their support. Another 6 percent said they either didn’t know or refused to answer.

Democrats were significantly more supportive of legalizing, regulating and taxing recreational marijuana than their Republican counterparts, with 81 percent saying they support legalization compared to 66 percent of GOP voters. Seventy-six percent of independents also were in the pro-legalization camp, the poll found.

The majority of voters across all age groups backed legalizing pot as well. Support was strongest among respondents who were under age 35 at 83 percent and between the ages of 35-50 at 81 percent. And while support declined among older voters, more than three-quarters of those in the 51-65 age group and about two-thirds of respondents 65 and older said they support legalization.

These findings come just days after two state lawmakers introduced  bills — one in the House and one in the Senate — that propose legalizing the use, distribution and cultivation of recreational marijuana, which would make Illinois the first midwestern state to do so.

Under the legislation, pot would be regulated and taxed like alcohol. Residents who are 21 and older would be able to posses up to 28 grams, or an ounce of marijuana, and grow up to five plants. However, consuming cannabis in public or in a moving vehicle still would be against the law and punishable by fines ranging from $100 to $500, and drivers could have their license suspended for six months for the first offense and one year for the second violation.

In addition to levying the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax on retail sales, an excise tax of $50 per ounce would be imposed on wholesale sales of mature flower products.

Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago say the main goal of the legislation is to create a new source of revenue for Illinois, which has gone without a budget for two years.

Steans said in an interview that she does not expect her bill to be voted on this session, but hopes it will get the conversation going and allow her colleagues and the public to be educated on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana.

Delio Calzolari, associate director at the Simon Institute and one of the poll’s designers, said in a press release the results of the survey show nearly all residents have some kind of opinion toward marijuana decriminalization and legalization.

“Few people seem indifferent on these issues,” Calzolari said.  “A vast majority appear to philosophically agree with decriminalization like the steps taken last year, although the definition of decriminalization and amounts in question are debatable. There is also overwhelming support for new cannabis public policy for recreational use shown.”

Last year, Steans and Cassidy co-sponsored a bill later signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner that decriminalized the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana and made it punishable by fines ranging from $100 to $200 at the state level, rather than being charged with a misdemeanor and potentially facing a six-month jail sentence and $1,500 in fines.

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, also revealed 74 percent of voters support decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis for personal use, while 21 percent stated they were opposed.

Jak Tichenor, interim director of the Simon Institute, noted that “Illinois voters are growing increasingly comfortable with the idea of decriminalizing marijuana” and that the poll provides “evidence that most see it as a potential revenue source for the state.”

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