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As legalized pot proposals grow, business stakes out its claims, concerns

As legalized pot proposals grow, business stakes out its claims, concerns
The flowering room at Revolution Enterprise's medical cannabis cultivation facility in Delavan, near Peoria, is photographed. Efforts to bring marijuana to the mainstream in Illinois may gain momentum in 2018. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Plans to legalize the recreational marijuana business in Illinois could really get rolling this year.

That's not to say state lawmakers in 2018 are going to approve pending legislation allowing the sale of recreational pot to adults.

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They may not be ready to pass that one along yet.

Pot puns aside, I do expect business and political support for legalized marijuana to gain greater strength and momentum in the coming months and for it to eventually become law in Illinois — especially as other states show off their impressive cannabis-selling and revenue-generating ways. It just became legal to buy recreational marijuana in California, and industry experts already are predicting $7 billion in annual sales.

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In March, Cook County is holding an advisory referendum on whether recreational marijuana use should be legal.

"This is a when — not an if — it is going to happen proposition," contends Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who along with fellow Chicago Democrat Sen. Heather Steans, is leading the cannabis legalization charge in the General Assembly.

The duo, who introduced the measure early last year, note that an emerging array of business interests appear eager to see recreational marijuana become a reality.

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Entrepreneurs, small-business owners, suppliers, accountants, lawyers, health care industry experts and agriculture-related enterprises are interested in getting a piece of an industry with initial Illinois sales potential of $700 million annually, even if it also promises to be a heavily regulated and controversial business opportunity.

Some supporters are already connected with or working within Illinois' nascent medical marijuana sector, while others are new to the emerging world of legal pot.

There's also a job-creation aspect to the proposal, which creates opportunities for growers, dispensary employees, marketers and even scientists in rural and downstate sections of Illinois. By 2020, there could be over 250,000 jobs nationally linked to the adult-use marijuana segment, according to New Frontier Data, which tracks the legal cannabis industry.

What's more, residents are getting behind the idea. Last year, a Paul Simon Public Policy Institute survey found 66 percent of 1,000 Illinois residents surveyed favor legalizing recreational cannabis use for adults.

Missing from the Illinois action, so far, are companies from Big Tobacco or Big Alcohol. Each group could arguably end up being significant commercial powers. They've kept their distance from legalization pushes, but this dynamic could be changing. Last year, Constellation Brands — whose well-known Corona beer business is based in Chicago — bought a 9.9 percent stake in a Canadian medical cannabis concern. Canada is in the throes of approving recreational pot use.

Although business interest is growing, Illinois companies still have justifiable concerns that legalizing marijuana use will complicate hiring people and running a company. For instance, firms with zero-tolerance drug policies worry the pending legislation could undercut that workplace rule.

Employees may get caught in a confusing, uncomfortable squeeze too. If passed, the state law would allow adults to smoke pot during off-hours but their bosses could insist they don't because of safety or other corporate rules. And what about pre-employment drug screens?

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These are the type of issues that have to be hashed out among lawmakers and business interests.

“We’re reaching out to business groups and telling them (the bill) will maintain the current ability to provide a zero-tolerance drug policy in the workplace,” Steans told me.

The bill's sponsors are optimistic that key Republicans will join their legislative push. Nonetheless, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is expected to oppose the bill. A recently formed group called Healthy & Productive Illinois is also lining up against it.

Meanwhile, major Democratic Party gubernatorial hopefuls J.B. Pritzker and Daniel Biss favor legalization, while Chris Kennedy is for full decriminalization but says the effects of marijuana merit further scientific research.

While Illinois ponders its future, other states are opening the floodgates to wider legalized marijuana opportunities.

Massachusetts and Maine are expected to start marketing legal cannabis this year; New Jersey and Michigan are considering it too. Eight states and the District of Columbia already have legalized recreational pot.

Illinois isn't there yet. But it's just a matter of time.

Twitter @ReedTribBiz

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