As Champaign-Urbana awaits the arrival of medical marijuana shops — any month now, officials say — voters here have a rare opportunity to push for legalizing the recreational version of the drug.
Step 1 comes at tonight's annual town meetings in Champaign and Urbana, where every registered voter has a say on policy questions. A group of them in both cities submitted petitions for the same single advisory question to be asked tonight.
That question: "Should the State of Illinois legalize and regulate the sale and use of marijuana in a similar fashion as the State of Colorado?"
If a majority of those present cast votes of support at today's meetings — 6 p.m. for Cunningham Township (Urbana), 7 for City of Champaign Township — the advisory question will be placed on either or both ballots for the Nov. 8 general election.
No matter the outcome then, the answer will not be binding; instead, it's just used to gauge public opinion on the issue.
"It's one of the unique things about township government," said City of Champaign Township Supervisor Andy Quarnstrom.
"It's a very simple standing process. It's an older type of politics. It's very old school."
Tonight's format is a little different than the meetings that usually happen in the two cities' council chambers.
First, a citizen will be elected moderator. "It could be anybody — the mayor, myself, anybody from the public," Quarnstrom said. The town clerk will swear in that person, who will then go off a pre-written script.
The only items on tonight's agendas are the marijuana question and the acceptance of the annual financial statements.
The pro-pot groups in each city had to get the petitions signed by at least 15 registered voters. Both got 18.
Quarnstrom senses the grass-roots effort behind the coordination might mean an uptick in turnout. Cunningham Town Clerk Phyllis Clark laughed when asked if there's normally a large crowd at her meeting.
"Usually when we have an annual town meeting, there are only three or four people. That includes me, (Township Supervisor) Michelle (Mayol), and whoever else from the assessor's office might be there and a council member," she said.
Two of the 18 verified signatures in Champaign were county board members Josh Hartke and Sam Shore, both Democrats.
Both said legalizing marijuana would help cash-strapped governments statewide by increasing tax revenue and decreasing the cost of incarcerating citizens.
"On the county board, we have a major issue with facilities, and we need new revenue. This is a place where we could find that revenue," Hartke said.
Shore said the referendum helps move the conversation on drug policies forward.
"It's time that voters had an opportunity to weigh in on the moral and medical sense behind our current marijuana prohibition laws," he said.
If the referendum is approved, County Clerk Gordy Hulten will put it on the ballot in November.
"We already have to customize the ballots," he said. "It doesn't create any new splits or logistical challenges. It's just the ballot is a little bit longer for voters."