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Illinois lawmakers hear from celebrity cannabis advocate

State lawmakers have taken another step towards legalizing recreational marijuana.

Illinois lawmakers on Tuesday heard from a celebrity advocate better known for touring than toking.

Rick Steves is best known for introducing millions of people to the wonders of Europe. But the longtime PBS travel host unpacked his bags in Chicago to advocate for something else close to his heart--the legalization of cannabis.

“We are dealing with decades of Reefer Madness kind of misinformation,” Steves said.

Steves has campaigned across the country--and poured money from his own pocket--into efforts to legalize marijuana.

On Tuesday, he told a joint panel of house and senate lawmakers that legalization in his home state of Washington in 2012 has only been beneficial.

"When you legalize marijuana, use does not go up. Teen use does not go up. DUI's don't go up. Crime does not go up. What goes up is tax revenue and what goes down is black market,” Steves said.

But a Republican lawmaker challenged Steves, saying the issue still needs a lot of study.

"He was using broad brushes to say things like usage has not gone up. Clearly usage has gone up even by the own standard of proponents. He was saying crime has not gone up. In Denver crime has gone up,” said State Senator Dan McConchie.

However, there has not been a connection between crime and marijuana legalization in Denver.

It’s unlikely marijuana has much to do with Denver’s recent uptick in crime, as Sharer suggested it did.

“Crime is up,” said Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson, ” but I don’t know if you can relate it to marijuana.”

Since 2012, the year when Colorado voters passed recreational marijuana legalization, the number of crimes in Denver has grown by about 44 percent, according to annual figures the city reported to the National Incident Based Reporting System.

In the past, police have argued that system potentially over-counts crimes and have preferred instead to cite the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which shows a 3.5 percent increase over the same span. Both of those increases are tempered when taking population growth into account.

But, regardless of the counting system, marijuana’s contribution to the measurement is small.

Beginning in 2012, city safety officials began tracking crimes that they believe are marijuana-related. In that first year, the city counted 223 offenses, 172 of which were connected to the marijuana industry, which at the time encompassed only medical marijuana businesses. Last year, the city counted 251 marijuana-related offenses, including 183 connected to the medical and recreational marijuana industry. (The numbers are for more serious offenses and do not include petty citations for violations such as public marijuana consumption, nor do they include crimes committed by juveniles.)

That means, in any given year, marijuana-related crimes in Denver make up less than 1 percent of all offenses counted in the Uniform Crime Report and less than a half-percent of all NIBRS offenses.

A bill introduced in Springfield would make it legal for adults 21 and older to possess, grow and purchase limited amounts of marijuana.

Some lawmakers say the state needs to get a piece of the action.

"I think that the legalization of marijuana represents a tremendous economic opportunity for the state of Illinois to raise additional tax dollars that can go towards public infrastructure, schools,” said State Rep. Christian Mitchell.

The panel also heard from a state representative from Colorado, which legalized pot in 2014.

"We have a 2.3 percent unemployment rate right now. So it's not like folks are sitting around on the couch getting stoned eating Cheetos and forgetting to go to work,” said Co. Rep. Dan Pabon.

Sponsors of the legalization bill say they plan to continue to hold hearings to build support and learn from the growing pains of other states where it's already the law.

Illinois lawmakers hear from celebrity cannabis advocate

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