Colorado leaped. Illinois crawled. And, to its social and fiscal detriment, Iowa is a stationary observer.
Marijuana policy is, quite literally, all over the map. Illinois last week joined the eastern model, using decriminalization as the next cautious step toward reasonable pot policy. It's a stark, logical approach to an issue that, out West, is an all-or-nothing potential cash cow.
In signing legislation making pot possession akin to a speeding ticket, Gov. Bruce Rauner showed that he, like so many, is evolving on the issue. Last year, Rauner vetoed legislation, which featured higher allowable amounts and lower fines. In a rare feat of compromise, the General Assembly responded with legislation that decriminalizes possession of up to 10 grams and institutes fines of $100 to $200 for those amounts. It's a huge step for a state that, researchers say, had some of the nation's most draconian marijuana laws, leading to more than 50,000 arrests every year. That's more than 50 percent of all drug arrests every year in Illinois.
Truth is, Nixonian marijuana policy is more than just scientifically unjustifiable and disproportionately damaging to racial minorities. It's economically and fiscally ridiculous.
The story happens too often: Get busted for pot. Find yourself unable afford the fees and fines associated with misdemeanor and felony crimes. Get arrested on a bench warrant. Go to jail.
Lives ruined. Jails filled. Taxpayers foot the bill.
Illinois' new law doesn't fix the problem. But it's an absolute improvement, especially against Iowa's unwillingness to accept strong scientific evidence that marijuana has a place within modern medicine. Meanwhile, Illinois's fledgling medicinal program looks to be coming into its own.
Detractors are correct when they argue that laws such as Illinois' decriminalization bill are simply steps toward Colorado-style legalization. And their doubts about treating marijuana similarly to booze aren't unfounded. Growing research suggests that, like alcohol, in-uterine exposure to marijuana adversely affects brain development. The jury's still out on its effect on adolescent minds. Technology doesn't yet exist allowing police to accurately test for intoxicated drivers, either. But it's also objectively true that the War on Drugs is a failure and, like it or not, pot is more readily available to teens than booze in even the most regulated states.
It's also possible the long trumpeted "gateway drug" effect is more linked to pot's illegal, black market status than anything else.
These questions remain unanswered. The sudden legitimacy of the pro-pot crusade, long stranded in the political fringes, has resulted in an explosion of research. The federal government continues to lag behind, putting otherwise legal distributors in a regulatory straitjacket. And states such as Colorado and Washington state jumped headlong into a pond of unanswered questions.
Illinois, on the other hand, is doing it right. It's moving slowly toward fact-based pot policy that recognizes the social, legal and scientific realities.
Maybe Illinois last week took a step toward legalization. Or, as the science evolves, it changed course altogether. It's a level of flexibility reserved solely for those who crawl before they run.