Weighing Legal Marijuana & Criminal Justice
Politicians spearheading the effort to legalize recreational marijuana say revenue isn't the driving force. It's about promoting criminal and social justice for people of color who have been unfairly targeted by the war on drugs. But, prominent activists from minority communities question whether these lofty goals are possible.
Back in Jan. when Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave his first budget address to a crowded room full of lawmakers, the first revenue-generating idea he mentioned for fiscal year 2020 was legalizing recreational cannabis. But, it wasn't really about the money, he said.
"I have noted many times that I don’t view this issue through a purely financial lens," Pritzker said. "I think we should take this action for our state because of the beneficial criminal and social justice implications and the jobs it will create."
Revenue estimates for an adult-use program have ranged anywhere from $350 million to more than a billion dollars for the state. Even with those numbers, the lead sponsors of the legislation reiterate it's still is not the reason why legalizing cannabis is important.
"Step one is ending prohibition, undoing the harm of the war on drugs," state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) told a public forum earlier this year. "And then, there will be revenue."
Politicians advocating for legal marijuana haven't wavered on this point, even through the months of negotiation to craft the legislation. But, not everyone believes it.
Teresa Haley, the president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, opposes legalization efforts -- although she supports expunging records and releasing people from jail or prison for minor pot crimes. But, one of Haley's main concerns is what happens after they are released.
"Where do they go? They don't have jobs," said Haley. "They don't have training programs. They don't have housing. Food, clothing and shelter are so important. If you release them without programs and without the assistance that they need to be successful, you're setting them up for failure and to return back to the prison system."
Illinois decriminalized the drug back in 2016. Even before that, not many people were prosecuted only for low-level cannabis crimes, so it is not likely that there would be a large number of prisoners being let out. The actual number of inmates that could or would qualify for early release is a mystery, though, because stakeholders are remaining tight-lipped on the details.
The Center for Criminal Justice Reform analyzed prison population data released by the Illinois Department of Corrections and found if people were released from prison for these offenses, they could probably all fit into one bus. As of June 2018, of the 40,872 inmates only 42 were serving a sentence for felony cannabis possession.
Data is not readily available for how many people are being held in local jails for marijuana offenses. But, the CCJ said the numbers are likely low. Often times these crimes do not result in pre-trial detention in jail. And if they are found guilty and sentenced, it is usually for less than a year.
Still, Haley is concerned that black and brown communities that have already been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs, will continue to suffer.
Robert Moore, who is a retired chief of police and federal marshal, sides with Haley. He believes legalization will allow law enforcement to continue to target minority communities.
"As a police officer, I know that you're probably going to be carrying more than what you can legally," he said. "I can say that, that's more than 3 ounces that you got and you gotta prove that maybe that's (not) true."
Since decriminalization, police departments are not required to report misdemeanor arrests or tickets. Statewide data is scarce and figures that are available, are often undercounted. But, last summer the Chicago Sun-Times found that of the 94 people that were busted for pot possession in the city, 76 of them were black, 16 were Hispanic, and two were white. This is despite evidence that usage rates among races are primarily the same.
Nationally, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), blacks have been four times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession. In Illinois, blacks are up to 8.5 times more likely to be arrested.
Moore believes this problem will persist if an adult-use program is approved: "These stops are gonna happen," he said. "They just can't be eliminated with this free flow of drugs."
Ed Wojcicki is the director for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. He said he does not believe officers patrol more heavily in minority communities, but the conversation is important.
"I think most law enforcement people would say we don't deliberately go out and adversely affect any black or brown community, and I believe that's true," said Wojcicki. But, I would listen to those who disagree."
Wojcicki also mentioned there may be some logistical hurdles when it comes to this idea of expunging records, which has been an important point for lawmakers as well. Wojcicki said this is because technology was not widely utilized until the mid-1990s and many records before that time are actually paper records. If lawmakers decide all of those records need to be expunged, it is going to be "extraordinarily burdensome."
"We think there needs to be some parameters put around the expungement issue," he said. "Maybe before a certain date...let's have the records sealed and only (able to be released) by a judge rather than say they all have to be expunged."
Still, stakeholders continue to advocate for this restorative justice and emphasize that it is the most important part of legalization. But, actual details of what that means or what it will look like are scant. Until bill language is filed, Rep. Cassidy said it is an ongoing conversation.
"We have to restore people's records," said Cassidy. "We have to make sure that the damage done by the war on drugs, that has to be a priority in this model to make sure we get it right."
Without those details, though, some advocates for minority communities like Teresa Haley, are not convinced.
"I don't see this as social justice; I see this as being social injustice," Haley said. "Because poor people will continue to be poor, and get even poorer, while the rich get richer."
Haley has called on the Black caucus to oppose legalizing recreational cannabis. So far they have not taken a stance on the issue, but are actively involved in negotiations.
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