DePaul SSDP’s Student Voter Forum Recap

DePaul Voter Forum
Written by Amy Hildebrand, IL State Policy Intern On a frigid Monday night in January, even a class with mandatory attendance would be hard-pressed to fill every seat at DePaul University, but DePaul SSDP was able to do just that last week when we hosted our Student Voter Cannabis Legalization Forum in an auditorium which seated about 70. The evening featured three panelists:
  • State Senator Heather Steans (D-7), sponsor of the bill to tax and regulate cannabis in IL.
  • Bret Bender, Illinois Political Director for Marijuana Policy Project, and
  • Stevie Valles, Director of Chicago Votes, a non-profit focused on helping young voters navigate ballots.
After a briefing from each speaker about their involvement in the IL legalization effort and what their teams are doing to expedite it, I opened the floor to questions. Here are some of the highlights of the conversation.
  • Home grow: As it is currently drafted, the legislation to tax and regulate adult-use cannabis in Illinois includes a provision to allow individuals to grow up to five cannabis plants in their home. Senator Steans mentioned concerns from law enforcement officers in other states with adult-use cannabis that home grow is the hardest provision of legalization to regulate and enforce. 
  • Medical Program: Illinois’ Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act was signed into law in August 2013 as a four-year pilot program. It has subsequently been renewed and is effective until July 1, 2020.  A patient must be diagnosed with one of 40 debilitating diseases to be eligible for the program. Fewer than 30,000 registered patients have been approved for the program. Many attendees at Monday’s forum asked questions about issues with the medical program. Senator Steans was adamant that the bill they are working on to tax and regulate adult-use cannabis will not affect the current medical marijuana bill. However, she was also quick to remind the room that legal adult-use cannabis means access for individuals who  are unable to become patients due to the narrow conditions list or who do not want to go through the application process. The bottom line is: legalization means more access for adults.
  • Revenue breakdown: As the bill is currently written, the revenue breakdown is as follows:
    • 30 percent to the State Board of Education;
    • 10 percent to the Department of Public Health to fund evidence-based, voluntary programs for the prevention or treatment of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis abuse;
    • 10 percent to the Department of Public Health to fund a scientifically and medically accurate public education campaign for youth and adults on the health and safety risks of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use;
    • 50 percent to the general revenue fund.
    However, the sponsors are considering changes to the revenue structure based on the feedback they have received from public hearings and stakeholder meetings. Senator Steans mentioned that it is important to not over-tax the product to encourage individuals to use the legal market rather than the black market.
  • Equity: Many attendees were concerned with barriers to entry into the new cannabis industry in Illinois and how it would affect those with lower incomes and/or criminal records. Attendees emphasized a desire to see wealth brought into communities that were torn apart by racialized drug policing. They want people who have faced legal action for distribution and other acts related to selling cannabis to be considered for legitimate jobs in dispensaries, cultivation centers, and transportation. They also want lowered licensing fees to encourage entrepreneurship. Senator Steans assured the crowd that these issues are important to her and are being considered in negotiations. 
  • Ballot initiative versus legislative process: We spoke at length about the positives and negatives of each process. The legislative process allows for thoughtful and deliberate consideration from individuals and organizations that support and oppose legalization efforts. Ballot initiatives create the parameters for legislation, which lawmakers then have to back into, which can be difficult. 
  • “Downstate”: Though our forum took place in Chicago, the conversation dipped into the issues our fight is facing downstate. The conversation with downstate legislators, so far, has been mostly about accepting inevitability and helping law enforcement and communities transition to a new reality with legal cannabis. All panelists asked the audience to talk to family and friends in their hometowns and encouraged them to call their representatives. It is in those communities that supportive voices may have the most sway.
There’s a lot to be gleaned from this event, but the most important thing I can impart on you is how easy it was organize this forum. With one room reservation, one speaker request form, one phone call to rent a microphone (which we didn’t even use) and a whole lot of strategic, but free, Facebook advertising, we managed to house an evening of genuine civic engagement. And, having sat in on meetings with Senator Steans and her team, I know our concerns and questions will be engaged. As panelist Stevie Valles said at the forum, “flex your political muscle.” If you’re in Illinois here’s what you can do:
  • Vote YES in the cannabis referendum on March 20th if you’re a Cook County resident. 
  • Call your state senators and representatives – especially the ones in the suburbs and rural communities. Tell them that you support cannabis legalization. Every call counts, especially in communities that are more conservative, or with representatives who are on the fence about legalization. Even more, tell your representatives the issues you care about. Push for drug war reparations for the hardest hit people. Push for equal opportunity and for less plastic in dispensaries. Now is our time to make our representatives craft this bill to our standards. 
  • Organize a town hall in your high school or hometown. Have difficult conversations in the communities you care about. Rent a room at the public library and make a Facebook event page. It can be that simple.
If you’re elsewhere, you can:
  • Share and support our social media campaigns for legalization here in IL. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the legislative process in your own state. 
  • Keep calling the people who represent you and telling them that legalizing cannabis is important to you. Encourage them to be a leader on this issue and not the last state to legalize.