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Governor Likens Drug Policy To Naming State Pie — Here's Why It Matters

pumpkin pie
Jeff Hawkins

Gov. Bruce Rauner has lately been critical of efforts to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying it’s not “what matters” in Illinois government. Our reporter has been closely following the governor’s overall efforts to improve Illinois’ criminal justice system, and was struck by Rauner’s comments on pot. So he decided to talk to someone who can explain how decriminalization fits into that broader effort.

It’s the second year in a row that Illinois legislators have approved the decriminalization measure. Rauner vetoed something similar last year but suggested changes — basically saying it should be slightly less lenient.

This year, lawmakers incorporated his suggestions. So it stands to reason that the governor ought to be willing to sign it into law. But when reporters have asked him about it, he’s tried to redirect the questions.

"I’ve been a little distracted with economic issues, and frankly more important issues,” Rauner said last week. "We in Illinois tend to get — we get caught up in what our state pie’s going to be and how much marijuana is going to get sold. You know, it’s lovely topics. We got a budget crisis. We need more jobs. We need higher wages. We need more money for our schools. Let’s focus on what matters."

That was not a unique comment. Rauner said much the same thing Monday afternoon in his Statehouse news conference: “You’re going to see a lot of votes and a lot of bills pop out this week. I hope they relate to what matters. We don’t need band aids. We don’t need to declare another state pie. We don’t need to declare another state vegetable. We don’t need to declare another illegal substance that we should expand. We need to focus on what matters."

There you have it: The governor is comparing a bipartisan change in criminal justice policy to naming the state pie — pumpkin, by the way, sponsored by a Republican and signed into law by … Gov. Rauner.

It’s a striking comment from a politician who’s been widely praised for saying he’s willing to take on the inefficiencies and inequities of our criminal justice system. Rauner has called for significantly reducing the number of people sent to prison in Illinois. Now, it’s true that decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana will not make much of a dent in that — very few people are sent to prison for small time pot busts, especially for a first offense. And yet, advocates say it’s a worthwhile step in the right direction.

Elena Quintana
Credit Adler University
Adler University
Elena Quintana heads the Institute on Public Safety & Social Justice at Adler University and is a member of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

When I heard the governor say that changing marijuana policy is not “what matters,” I thought Elena Quintana might provide an interesting counterpoint. She’s a Ph.D. psychologist on the faculty at Adler University in Chicago, where she’s director of the Institute on Public Safety & Social Justice. She’s also a member of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform — the group Rauner appointed to figure out how to safely reduce the prison population.

Quintana has been a singular voice on the commission, calling for one of the most radical departures from Illinois' current criminal justice policies — namely, a full decriminalization of all drugs.

Interview Highlights

On what could be gained from decriminalization

For me, the interest in decriminalizing drugs is about putting drugs and drug addiction back into the realm of public health. It’s a mistake, I think, that we have criminalized drugs in many respects and put it into the criminal justice field because criminal justice is not designed to treat drug addiction. And it’s also not designed to ameliorate poverty. It doesn’t do either of those things at all. If anything it makes both of those things worse.

On Portugal’s experience

I’m no expert on Portugal, but what I have read and what I understand is that drug use has declined significantly (PDF), particularly for young people between ages 15 and 24, which is really the population that’s at great risk of starting to use drugs in the first place. And that it really destigmatizes finding treatment, and that it creates a much more robust public health system, where you can use things like clean injection sites so that there’s less HIV transmission or hepatitis transmission. And there is counseling that is destigmatized and decriminalized for people to seek out and find the help that they might need.

On why criminal justice policy is an economic issue for some communities

You see whole neighborhoods that are really affected by mass incarceration. They may live in neighborhoods where there’s far less industry, where it’s far more difficult to get a job, where they don’t know people who can help them get jobs. And so it’s just issue on top of issue that I think are part and parcel of institutionalized violence against neighborhoods in Chicago.

On how focusing on drug treatment rather than enforcement might help some Chicago neighborhoods

If you take drugs out of the equation, or if you have people engaged in the positive aspects of healing, and create an industry of healing — an industry of peace — and you have many of these community members who are engaged in things like positive outreach work, positive community rebuilding, then obviously that’s a much better investment in these communities that have otherwise been stripped, because all of this resources for the communities are busy supporting the families in these downstate communities where prisons are, like Dwight and Pontiac and Danville.

On how other commission members have reacted to Quintana’s suggestion of legalization

I think that it’s a very touchy subject. That people really are interested because all of the data goes that way. If you talk on an off-the-record basis, and just person-by-person, and you talk about it in a theoretical realm, many people are very persuaded by the data, and they say, "Wow, that really looks to be very promising. Countries and jurisdictions that have decriminalized haven’t had the negative consequences that we’ve been warned of. In fact, they’ve had pretty positive consequences of decriminalization." And so I think that people are very excited by that, but also I think that there’s another narrative that "it was really difficult to get this reform, we need to be more conservative so that anything can pass, we need to really try to make something that’s going to make everybody happy," as opposed to just creating something that would be best for public health, that’s data-driven, and that could really help people that are addicted get services and supports that they need.

On how personal experience can inform drug policy

I think there’s a lot of people in government who have been very negatively impacted by drug addiction within their families, and there’s tremendous fear to lift restrictions on banned substances. And I completely respect and understand that. We need to be brave in terms of taking the counterintuitive step of loosening bans so that we can destigmatize care — and be able to fund that care. Because this is what’s actually been shown to be effective.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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