Pubdate: Fri, 29 Apr 2016
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2016 Sun-Times Media, LLC


Illinois lawmakers have a solid shot of passing a law to 
decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana - and of 
seeing Gov. Bruce Rauner actually sign that legislation.

Lawmakers last year sent Rauner a bill to make possession of up to 15 
grams of pot a ticketable - rather than a criminal - offense, but 
Rauner vetoed it, saying it would allow people to carry too much pot 
and that stiffer fines than $55 to $125 were warranted.

A new version of that bill, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans 
(D-Chicago), picks up language from Rauner's amendatory veto. It 
would allow possessors of even less marijuana - 10 grams - to face 
slightly larger fines of $100 to $200.

The language of the latest bill may not be perfect, but it stands the 
best chance of getting signed by Rauner. The Senate has passed it; we 
urge the House to do the same because the general principles the bill 
reflects are sound.

SB 2228 would allow those caught with personal-use amounts of pot to 
avoid jail, have their tickets automatically expunged periodically, 
and avoid a criminal record that could hurt their future chances at 
jobs or housing.

By not clogging up the court system, the measure could save taxpayers 
as much as $24 million a year and free up police to focus on more 
serious crimes.

We are talking about, at most, possession of 10 grams of weed - an 
amount that, based on federal standards for medical marijuana, would 
equate to 11 to 13 joints. That's generally considered a personal-use 
amount, says the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports the bill.

Some law enforcement officials back the proposal, too. That includes 
the Illinois State's Attorneys Association and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

The bill packs an important safety valve. Steans said it would still 
allow local governments to require additional fines or drug 
treatment. That could be an important caveat for lawmakers from more 
conservative Illinois districts.

More than 100 Illinois local governments, including Chicago, have 
already removed at least some criminal penalties for possession of 
lower-level amounts of marijuana, Steans notes. So the bill reflects 
a growing state - and even national - trend toward marijuana decriminalization.

The bill also could smooth out what appears to be uneven 
implementation of some ordinances decriminalizing small amounts of 
pot. Marijuana prosecution, Steans says, has become a "festering site 
of inequity in Illinois," with blacks arrested at seven times the 
rate of whites.

For example, after Chicago passed a 2012 ordinance that allowed 
ticketing for small amounts of pot, disparities in Chicago marijuana 
arrest rates increased, a 2014 Roosevelt University study found. Some 
Chicago neighborhoods with the largest black populations saw large 
jumps in marijuana arrests, while some heavily white neighborhoods 
saw large drops, the study showed.

In other words, given a choice, it appeared that Chicago Police were 
more likely to charge African-American pot possessors and give whites 
only tickets.

Steans' bill would ensure that no one in Illinois could be criminally 
charged for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana.

Illinois Family Institute lobbyist Ralph Rivera worries the bill 
treats teenage offenders the same as adults and carries no specific 
provisions requiring treatment for repeat offenders. Rivera favors 
requiring defendants caught a third time within a year to appear in 
court so a judge can evaluate whether they need drug treatment.

"If you are caught three times in a year, you must be doing it every 
day because nobody catches it every day," Rivera said. "We think 
there should be a cap on this, where there should be intervention, 
looking at treatment, some type of supervision."

But does such treatment really help? Chris Lindsey, Illinois 
legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, notes he has 
yet to see a study proving treatment for marijuana usage changes 
behavior. Cara Smith, chief policy director for Sheriff Dart, agrees. 
Cook County Jail treatment programs target heroin or other drugs, Smith said.

And Steans notes that the bill allows local jurisdictions to add on 
such provisions for treatment or stiffer fines.

Said Steans: "We don't want to make any other changes to the language 
because we don't want to give the governor any reasons to change it."

Given the budget stalemate, it seems a shame not to seize this chance 
to pass Rauner-friendly legislation with so many pluses. It can 
always be amended later if red flags raised by critics prove true.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom