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Legislators are scheduled to return to Springfield next week to begin the hard work of putting together a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Given the state's dire financial circumstances, they'll have their hands full.

But it should be no surprise that near the top of their to-do list is passing legislation legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is positively frothing at the mouth over the new revenue he believes the state will generate by legalizing — and thereby encouraging — consumption of what will be a highly taxed substance.

Indeed, he has already arranged to spend $170 million in now-phantom revenue that he hopes the state will generate from marijuana taxes in the coming budget year.

In most states, that would be putting the cart before the horse. This being Illinois, it's just business as usual and probably not even the worst of business as usual.

Unfortunately, this proposal isn't the unadulterated good legalization proponents contend.

Their principal defense of legalized marijuana is that people of all ages are using it illegally now. So the state might as well turn it into a legitimate business and profit from its sale through the taxes they'll impose. Further, they argue that keeping marijuana illegal wastes law enforcement resources and results in unnecessary incarceration of individuals, many of them minorities.

There was a time when the latter argument carried some weight. But the legislative choice our legislators face is not between legalization and criminalization — it's between legalization and decriminalization.

Legislators decriminalized marijuana several years ago — it's a fine-only offense for possession of small amounts. Further, the enforcement of fine-only offenses is — and should be — a low priority for law enforcement.

Indeed, decriminalization is de facto legalization but with just enough teeth to discourage more widespread use of this unhealthy substance.

That's a good thing because society does not need to make it easier for people, particularly the young, to consume intoxicants. It's already easy enough.

There will be dramatically increased use of marijuana if it is legalized.

Consequently, there will be negative public health consequences, particularly for those who are young and immature as well as those who suffer from mental disabilities. Users who come from vulnerable lower socio-economic groups will be more prone to becoming the unproductive, uninterested slackers of tomorrow.

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a onetime drug addict and scion of the famed Kennedy family, recently warned Illinois legislators about the "devastating consequences" to public health, public safety and families that legalization represents.

He specifically noted the market appeal of marijuana to those individuals who have the most to lose in terms of living successful, happy lives.

"In Los Angeles, the majority of pot shops have opened in primarily African-American communities and, in Colorado, where pot shops outnumber McDonalds and Starbucks locations, they are disproportionately in similar areas," he said.

It's always those who have the least who suffer the most when it comes to experimenting with drugs and alcohol. They have fewer resources to fall back on when they get themselves in trouble.

State Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, recently warned his colleagues that evidence shows legalization generates increased usage, a correlation that is no surprise, and increased social problems.

"When usage goes up, abuse will go up, and there will be more people landing on the doorsteps of drug treatment providers across this state," he said.

Righter would have spent his time more productively howling at the moon. Many of Righter's colleagues either don't want to hear the downside of legalization or are coldly indifferent to its human costs. They've convinced themselves that legalization will be benign in its social impact as well as a fiscal motherlode generating untold millions of new tax dollars.

It won't fall into either of those categories. But there will be plenty of time to worry about that after it's too late.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.