Area legislators discuss decriminalization of pot


Northwest Side legislators who voted in favor of a bill that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana said that the legislation was the first step in criminal justice reform that would keep people out of jail for minor crimes.

Governor Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 2228, which makes possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of $100 to $200 instead of jail time, on July 29. The Illinois Senate voted 40-14 in April and the Illinois House voted 64-50 in May in favor of the law.

Possession of up to 2.5 grams of cannabis previously was a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,500, while possession of between 2.5 and 10 grams was considered a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,500.

Possession of more than 10 grams can result in up to a year in jail, and felony charges and between 1 to 6 years in jail can apply to subsequent offenses and when possessing large amounts. The fines will be the same for people caught with drug paraphernalia.

Northwest Side legislators who voted in favor of the bill include Senators William Delgado (D-2), Heather Steans (D-7), who co-sponsored the bill, Ira Silverstein (D-8), Daniel Biss (D-9), John Mulroe (D-10), Iris Martinez (D-20) and Laura Murphy (D-28).

State representatives who voted in favor are Luis Arroyo (D-3), Greg Harris (D-13), John D’Amico (D-15), Lou Lang (D-16), Robert Martwick (D-19) and Jaime Andrade Jr. (D-40). State Representatives Michael McAuliffe (R-20) and Marty Moylan (R-55) voted against the measure.

"Illinois had a drug policy on the books that wasn’t making the public any safer but was exacerbating unacceptable inequalities in the criminal justice system," Steans said. "By decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of cannabis, we’re eliminating something that in practice had become a net that disproportionately ensnared minorities and the poor, then stigmatized them with a criminal record that made it difficult to get a job or an education."

Steans said that although a similar percentage of whites and African Americans use marijuana, data reveal that blacks in the state are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate seven times that of white residents.

"It’s very consistent with what is happening around the country, and I think that this law will make that more equitable," Steans said. "Minorities are getting locked up for minor cannabis possession at a rate of 7-to-1 for the same crimes as Caucasians, even though we know that use is almost the same. This will help people have equal treatment in terms of the law."

Steans said in a statement that almost 50,000 state residents are arrested for marijuana possession each year. More than 100 local governments in Illinois have passed ordinances removing some criminal penalties for cannabis possession.

Under the new law, municipalities will be able to assess additional fines and conditions, such as drug treatment requirements. Records of minor cannabis-related violations will be automatically expunged each year.

"One thing that this does is that it provides standards for testing what constitutes a DUI," Steans said. "Before it was tricky because THC stays in your system for a long time, so any amount was considered driving under the influence. Now we have something that makes sense."

Because THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis, can remain in a person’s bloodstream long after he or she is no longer impaired, there was a need to redefine the threshold in order to ensure that drivers are being tested for their current level of impairment rather than their past use, according to Steans. The new standard mirrors the current law regarding blood alcohol levels, Steans said.

The law states that people will be charged with driving while intoxicated if they operate a vehicle, snowmobile or watercraft with a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration in the person’s blood of 5 nanograms or more per milliliter of whole blood.

"This is commonsense, carefully crafted legislation that recognizes the deleterious effects arrests and prosecutions for small-scale cannabis possession have had on individuals, families and communities," Steans said. "Our drug policy should reflect a genuine concern for public health and public safety, not enshrine in state law the fears and biases of the past."

"It makes sense to me," Mulroe said. "We have limited resources, and to incarcerate people for small amounts of marijuana seems counterproductive. We can’t make people criminals and be less employable because they have some minor marijuana possession on their record."

Mulroe said that the citation is like a speeding ticket. "You still can’t drive around impaired because you will get charged with a DUI," he said. "We are trying to get people not to drive around impaired but also have something on the books that makes sense so we are getting wiser about the use of our resources."

Harris said that he supported the legislation to not "fill up our jails with lower level marijuana offenders."

"It just makes sense," Harris said. "It gives people an opportunity to not have a criminal background so they can get a job or instead get some treatment if they need it for substance abuse instead of incarceration. Putting people in jail for minor offenses costs the state millions of dollars."

Harris said that the bill is a step in the right direction. "I think we need to look at all of our drug policies because they haven’t worked and they are not helping and costing us a lot of money," he said.

"I’ve spoken to law enforcement officials and impaired driving is impaired driving, whether it is alcohol or marijuana, so people have to deal with that and make good choices," Harris said.
McAuliffe said that he did not vote for the legislation because it sends the wrong signal to young people and that it essentially lets them drive after using marijuana.

"I think it’s wrong to say, hey that this is an illegal drug because it is, and then say that as long as you have this amount and not this amount then it is okay," McAuliffe said. "You can’t drive around with an open beer can in your car, but you can drive around with less than 10 grams of marijuana."

"It tells high school kids they can drive around and smoke joint after joint after joint," McAuliffe said. "I know that they don’t want to fill up the jails with nonviolent criminals, but I’m against it and it just sends the wrong message."

"My liberal colleagues are probably happy about this new law and consider it a win, but I don’t support it and that’s my stance," McAuliffe said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, 25 states have legalized medical marijuana, and 23 states have bills in the legislature to legalize the substance.

Marijuana also has been decriminalized in Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia, according to the conference.