Marijuana reforms wither in General Assembly

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Rep La Shawn Ford: tired of politicans blowing smoke on marijuana reform
  • Rep La Shawn Ford: tired of politicans blowing smoke on marijuana reform
Don't hold your breath for the state of Illinois to change its costly approach to busting people caught with pot.

Fifteen other states have passed decriminalization laws, and Chicago recently joined more than 90 other Illinois municipalities in making pot possession a ticketable infraction locally. Yet our legislators have tabled a series of proposals that would do the same thing across Illinois.

There are no signs that changes will come anytime soon.

“I have not heard any discussion on it,” says Steve Brown, the longtime spokesman for Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan.

In other words: it’s not on the agenda of anyone powerful enough to move it along.

And so goes the politics of pot. Current policies may be expensive and ineffective—and wielded differently on different racial groups—but those with the power to change them don't have the guts or interest, while those who want reforms don't have the clout.

Statewide, police made about 19,000 arrests on various marijuana charges in the 1970s. That number has soared to about 51,000 in recent years, the vast majority of them for misdemeanor possession. These arrests takes officers off the street and cause backlogs at state crime labs—even before they're moved into the criminal court system.

The state's budget is billions of dollars in the red, forcing Governor Pat Quinn to slash spending and programming in a number of areas, including the correctional system. But so far top elected officials have avoided serious discussion of ways to cut the number of people pulled into the criminal justice system for low-level offenses, including pot possession, one of the most common.

In January of last year, long before Chicago officials had cannabis on the table, state rep La Shawn Ford introduced a bill that would make the possession of up to an ounce a "petty offense" punishable by fines starting at $500. Reform advocates told him the fines were too steep for the poor black kids most commonly busted. Ford said he wanted something that could win support across the aisle.

“Paying a fine is still going to be a lot cheaper than paying an attorney and getting a background,” says Ford, a west-side Democrat.

As the bill sat lifeless in committee, Ford started talking with Republicans, including west-suburban rep Dennis Reboletti, a former prosecutor. Reboletti was interested in finding ways to help police save time and money for more serious crimes, but he wanted to come up with a bill that the state police and county prosecutors could back.

This February Ford introduced a rewritten bill that was the product of compromise—so much compromise as to make the proposal irrelevant. While the fines had been lowered to $100 for a first offense, the bill would only cover possession of up to a tenth of a gram, or four one-thousandths of an ounce, a trace amount equivalent to dust in a baggie.

“That’s what the law enforcement agencies said they could support,” Ford says. “Thank goodness this didn’t pass.”

In other words, the situation has become nutty enough that the sponsor of the most recent marijuana reform proposal is now opposed to it.

Still, Ford believes Chicago’s new ordinance could provide a model for a new bill, and he’s vowing to reignite discussions when the General Assembly convenes for its veto session this fall. “You can’t have different laws across the state,” he says. “Unfortunately, while I’ve had a great response from constituents, the Republicans don’t want to be seen as soft on crime.”

Naturally, Reboletti views it a little differently. He says what matters to law enforcement are the details: how much pot would be ticketable, what the fines would be, what the money would go toward, what to do about repeat offenders.

Reboletti agrees that Chicago’s ordinance could change the conversation, especially since everyone's looking for ways to save money. “I think it is somewhat influential,” he says. “But at the same time, this is something that other communities—including ones I represent—already do.”

And it’s probably not just Republicans standing in the way of a change. The veto session is likely to be dominated by discussions over pension reform, and it’s not at all clear that Speaker Madigan will advance a proposal to ease up on the penalties for marijuana possession. As Brown puts it: “We’ll get back and see if it’s something people want to talk about.”

They wouldn't have to stray too far to look into the issue. One of the cities that already tickets possessors rather than arresting and incarcerating them is Springfield—you know, the state capital, where the General Assembly meets.

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