Cook County holding non-binding referendum on legal cannabis: Does it matter?

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CHICAGO (ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK) — Cook County voters will get a chance to sound off on whether they think recreational marijuana should be regulated and taxed. An advocate says the non-binding referendum is a big deal. Opponents of legalization say it’s just a political stunt.

Cook County residents will weigh in on the March 20 primary ballot after county commissioners unanimously approved the question: “Shall the State of Illinois legalize the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?”

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute conducted a poll back in March that found 66 percent of Illinois residents approved regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol. That poll was of 1,000 randomly selected registered voters across the state.

Marijuana Policy Project Senior Legislative Council Chris Lindsey said that was broad.

“It talks to folks from different walks of life across a wide swath,” Lindsey said, “and that’s important because we need to know what people are thinking all around the state.”

In Chicago, the poll found 74 percent of voters support legalization.

Lindsey said Cook County’s non-binding ballot referendum will be even more important.

“That’s not a sample poll, that’s a vote,” Lindsey said. “So we’re no longer looking at the map trying to think, ‘Is this a representation?’ No, we don’t have to do that. We know exactly how they feel. Here’s the results of the election.”

Cook County had about 1.4 million registered voters for the 2016 presidential primary election, where only 48.6 percent turned out, according to the Cook County Clerk’s website.

Illinois Family Institute Executive Director David Smith opposes legalization and said weed on the ballot is a bad idea.

“This is just another distraction by liberal politicians from Cook County who don’t want to deal with the issues of crime and gang violence and murder, unemployment, failing schools, $140 billion worth of debt hanging over their head,” Smith said. “This is a way to distract and throw some shining objects at the voters instead of dealing with these hard issues.”

Smith also said this is an effort to get the young idealistic vote out.

“Appealing to young people with this legalized marijuana nonsense is going to maybe help turn out the young vote for the Democratic Party in Cook County,” he said.

Lindsey said the question is important to gauge a large sample of voters’ opinions. He said another important development is leading Republican state Sen. Jason Barickman being open to legalization conversations.

“We would rather engage with folks who say, ‘Hey, I’ve got concerns’,” Lindsey said. “Let’s bring everybody to the table.”

Smith said Barickman is falling for a popular, but bad, public policy initiative.

“I think the university there in Bloomington Normal is having an effect on Jason,” he said. “Outside of Normal, Illinois, that doesn’t play in his district.”