Opponents: Reduced Marijuana Penalty Is Gateway To Legalization

Mar 18, 2015

Credit BrettLevinPhotography / Flickr

Critics of Rep. Kelly Cassidy’s proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a ticketable offense consider the bill a first step toward the state making possession of the drug legal.

House Bill 218, introduced by the Chicago Democrat, calls for possession of 30 grams of cannabis to be reduced to a civil — instead of criminal — offense, punishable by issuance of a ticket and a fine of up to $125.

Some municipal governments have already made similar changes to local law. Cassidy argues that her bill is more about bringing uniformity than legalizing or decriminalizing statewide possession of small amounts of the substance. She calls it an attempt to “right size” the state’s criminal justice system.

The lawmaker says the current “patchwork of ordinances” municipalities have adopted give possession leniency for varying amounts, with fines ranging from $25 to $5,000.

“Ultimately the outcome is confusion and inconsistent enforcement throughout our state,” Cassidy said. In the city of Springfield, police can issue a minimum $300 ticket to someone caught with 2.5 grams or less of cannabis. Chicago’s threshold is under 15 grams with tickets issued for $250 to $500. Since adopting a 2008 ordinance, Urbana police have been able to issue minimum $200 tickets for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Proponents of making possession of small amounts of the drug a petty offense point to the man-hours police use in enforcing the cases and the long-term impact arrests have on offenders. A year before Chicago adopted its ordinance, there were over 18,000 arrests for 10 grams or less of cannabis, according to police data. Processing the cases involved four officers and added to the clogged court and jail systems, officials said.

Cassidy says her bill addresses the manpower issue -- along with uniformity.

“What we hope to accomplish with this bill is to create a uniform level that will allow for better use of our law enforcement resources, more fair enforcement of our laws, less disproportionate impact on our criminal system – both at the local and state level,” she said. “We have more pressing needs in our communities, much more pressing uses for our law enforcement resources.”

She pointed out that having marijuana possession violations – even small amounts – could lead to many other issues, including not being able to get federal financial aid and difficulty getting a job. She feels the bill addresses that.

The bill has been approved by the House Restorative Justice Committee, but some supporters, such as Chicago Democratic Rep. Ken Dunkin, say “it doesn’t go far enough.”

Still, there is also concern over what the legislation would consider a small amount. Opponents argue that the amount of marijuana the bill would allow for is too much. Cassidy says 30 grams of cannabis would, approximately, fill a sandwich bag. Ralph Rivera, of the Illinois Family Institute, said that is too much to be considered small, and that amount could yield 30 to 70 joints to smoke.

“That’s more than casual use. Someone who has possession of that much is probably addicted. Our position would be that state law should not decriminalize it,” he said.

Matt Jones, associate director of the Illinois State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor, says the amount is an issue for prosecutors.

“We oppose this bill as it is currently drafted,” Jones said. “We think that (30 grams) threshold needs to be addressed. That amount of drugs is a proxy or an [indication] of dealing.”

Cassidy tried to push back thoughts of the bill being a precursor to the state legalizing marijuana – something several committee members say they oppose. Though she insisted the proposal’s goal is uniformity, she acknowledged “this could be characterized an incremental move” toward legalization.

Currently, Washington, Alaska, Colorado and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana use. Illinois is among states that have legalized medical marijuana.

Cassidy said she would make some changes before presenting the bill for a floor vote in the House. She said she would consider reducing the 30 grams to a more “commonly found and most reasonable” amount.