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Illinois bills seek to legalize, tax marijuana sales to adults

CHICAGO, March 22 (Reuters) - Illinois would legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults and tax it to raise at least $350 million a year for the cash-strapped state under legislation introduced on Wednesday.

Two Democratic lawmakers sponsoring the bills said the measures pending before the House and Senate would allow law enforcement to focus on other crimes and enable the state to create a system for regulating and taxing marijuana sales.

Adults aged 21 and older would be able to possess, grow, and purchase limited amounts of marijuana, under the legislation. Businesses cultivating, processing, testing and selling pot would be licensed and regulated by the state, which would also impose labeling requirements and marketing restrictions.

State Senator Heather Steans, one of the sponsors, said money would flow to licensed, taxpaying businesses instead of to criminals.

"It would generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year in new revenue for our state," Steans said in a statement. "Prohibition is a financial hole in the ground, and we should stop throwing taxpayer dollars into it.”

The fifth-largest U.S. state is limping through a second straight fiscal year without a complete budget due to an ongoing impasse between its Republican governor and Democrats who control the legislature.

Illinois' unpaid bills, a barometer of its deep financial problems, hit an all-time high of $12.8 billion last week.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but it has been legalized for recreational use in eight states, including Washington, Colorado and California, as well as the District of Columbia. Last year, legal sales reached $7 billion and generated half a billion dollars in sales taxes.

Eleni Demertzis, a spokeswoman for Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, said the marijuana measures are under review.

If the legislation is enacted, Illinois could raise between $349 million and $699 million annually based on usage rates and prices in Colorado, which began legalized adult marijuana sales in 2014, according to advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project.

The Illinois legislation would impose a $50 per ounce tax at the wholesale level, while sales to the public would be subject to the state's 6.25 percent sales tax. Marijuana possession would be limited to 28 grams and five plants per adult resident. Nonresidents could possess only 14 grams.

An Illinois law creating a medical cannabis pilot program went into effect in 2013.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog; Editing by Matthew Lewis)