SPRINGFIELD — Supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana in Illinois will face stiff opposition this year from leaders of the state’s largest religious denomination.
The six Catholic bishops in Illinois issued a joint statement Monday urging lawmakers to reject any attempt to legalize marijuana.
“As lawmakers consider this issue, it is important to remember they are not only debating legalization of marijuana, but also commercialization of a drug into an industry the state will profit from,” the bishops said in the statement. “In seeking the common good, the state should protect its citizens.”
The six bishops are leaders of the six Catholic dioceses in Illinois, which compose the Catholic Conference of Illinois. CCI is made up of the Archdiocese of Chicago and other dioceses in Belleville, Joliet, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield.
CCI Executive Director Bob Gilligan said in an interview that there are roughly 3.5 million Catholics in the state. That’s about 28 percent of the state’s population, making Catholicism the single largest denomination in Illinois, according to the Pew Research Center.
Illinois legalized marijuana for certain medical uses in 2013, and state lawmakers are expected to consider proposals this year to expand the list of conditions for which people can obtain prescriptions for the drug. CCI did not take an official position on that issue, Gilligan said.
But legalizing it for recreational use was also a major issue for Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s successful campaign in 2018, and a number of supporters have already begun trying to draft legislation.
In addition, voters in Cook County in March 2018 overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding ballot referendum calling for statewide legalization of recreational pot for people over age 21, subject to state regulation and taxation.
As of 2018, according to “Governing” magazine, 10 states and the District of Columbia had legalized recreational marijuana. But as Illinois ponders whether to become the 11th state to do so, Gilligan said he believes the momentum for it is waning.
“I think there was a lot of energy, and there’s still a lot of energy behind the efforts to legalize it, but that was in a campaign mode prior to November,” he said. “This was on some ballots where you saw a fairly large number of people supporting it. But now that it’s time for those people to figure out how to implement this in such a way that it does not harm the public, the momentum that you’re seeing is slowing down considerably.”
The statement from the bishops did not reference any specific theological objection to marijuana use. Rather, it suggested there would be a danger of widespread public health and safety consequences.
“Data collected by government agencies and public-interest groups document that drug use is rampant in modern society,” the bishops said. “Just a few years ago, we heard too many stories of children turned into orphans after their parents overdosed on heroin. Today, we hear of the opioid crisis and the lives it claims. If marijuana is legalized, it will only add to the problem.”
Pritzker’s press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh, said in an email statement that the governor remains committed to legalization.
“Governor Pritzker supports legalizing and taxing the recreational use of marijuana and is confident we are ready to do this in a safe and economically beneficial way in Illinois,” Abudayyeh said. “He is committed to working with leaders in the General Assembly, listening to experts and community leaders, and drawing lessons and best practices from other states to move this forward.”