Medical marijuana

The New Year ushers in the official start of a four-year trial program that would allow patients with certain chronic illnesses to obtain a prescription for medical marijuana. However, the afflicted still are many months from being able to light up legally as state regulators are working out rules and have yet to issue licenses for marijuana growers and dispensing centers.

Supporters say Illinois' medical marijuana law is among the toughest in the nation. Patients cannot legally grow their own supplies and must have an existing relationship with their prescribing doctor. Patients and caregivers will be fingerprinted and undergo background checks, and must promise not to sell or give away marijuana. Workers at 22 grow centers and 60 dispensaries will undergo the same vetting.

Precisely where growers and sellers could locate will be determined by state regulators. While suburbs are putting in place strict zoning laws to limit where marijuana could be sold or grown, local officials cannot prevent such businesses from opening in their towns. Property owners would have the ability to ban marijuana use on their grounds. Employers would maintain their rights to a drug-free workplace, meaning someone with a valid medical marijuana card could be fired for using the drug if their employer prohibits it.

Gay marriage

After a 40-year push for gay rights in Illinois, a new law on June 1 will redefine marriage in Illinois from an act between a man and a woman to one between two people. Civil unions could be converted to marriages within a year of the law going on the books. About 6,500 applications for civil unions have been filed since 2011, with about 4,000 originating in Cook County.

Illinois pension reform

The new law will raise the retirement age for many state workers and scale back the size of and even skip some annual cost-of-living increases. In return, the state would put a few hundred dollars into most workers' pockets by slightly reducing the amount of money they have to chip in from their paychecks.

The legislation also keeps intact current benefits for some of the longest-serving, lowest-paid workers who get the smallest retirement checks until their benefits grow to certain levels. In addition, it allows an opportunity for some workers to join a 401(k)-style plan and have more input in managing their retirement nest eggs.

The changes are projected to erase a $100 billion pension shortfall over three decades. If no changes were made, the state would be on the hook for about $374 billion in pension payments over the next 30 years. With the proposed changes, the state's price tag over that same period would drop to $214 billion — a savings of $160 billion.

Sex education

Public schools that teach sex education will now be required to provide students information about birth control, a departure from previous policy in which abstinence was the only required curriculum.

Backers argue that abstinence-only education is not effective and that students should be taught about other methods of birth control and how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Those opposed to the change say parents should decide how to educate their kids about sex.

Schools still have the option to not teach sex education, and the law allows school districts to set their own "age-appropriate" lesson plans and allow parents to examine instructional materials. Parents also can opt to keep their children out of sex education classes without penalty.

Pet laws

Pet shops will be required to disclose outbreaks of potentially life-threatening diseases, and cat and dog owners could receive a refund and return a new pet to a store up to one year after purchase if a veterinarian finds an animal had a hereditary or congenital condition. If an animal dies of an illness, pet shops also could be on the hook for veterinary costs.

Meanwhile, a judge could hand down fines of up $1,500 and jail sentences of up to six months to dog owners who don't follow new rules on how to properly tether their pet outside. A dog's lead must be at least 10 feet and cannot exceed one-eighth of the animal's body weight. It also must be attached to a harness or collar that does not pinch or choke the dog. Tethered dogs must be provided adequate food, water and shelter and be restricted from being able to reach someone else's property or a public sidewalk or road. Penalties increase with subsequent violations. As is usually the case with this type of law, enforcement will be key.

Teen tanning bed ban

Illinois teens under age 18 will no longer be allowed to use tanning beds, even if they have permission from a parent. Previously, children 14 and younger were banned, while those 14 to 17 could use the tanning beds with parental permission. Some cities, including Chicago and Springfield, have policies that ban minors from using tanning beds. Teenagers still could use get a bronzed glow using spray tan machines, which do not use ultraviolet lights.

Teen e-cig ban

Those under 18 also will be banned from buying electronic cigarettes. Meanwhile, smokers of traditional cigarettes could face fines of up to $1,500 and up to six months in jail for not properly disposing of butts after cigarettes were added to the state's definition of litter. It remains to be seen if a judge will mete out such severe punishment, however.