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The reefer solution

Legislation from state Rep. La Shawn Ford would reform marijuana laws

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State Rep La Shawn Ford has heard the argument that marijuana is a gateway drug, and in one sense he agrees. "Marijuana is not a gateway to the next hard drug," the west-side Democrat says, "but the gateway to prison."

He doesn't think that's right—especially given the fact that pot laws are disproportionately enforced in low-income and African-American communities.

In March Ford introduced a bill that would lower the penalties for marijuana possession statewide. Rather than facing an arrest and potential jail time, anyone caught with up to an ounce would be fined between $500 and $1,000.

The bill was promptly buried in committee, and a spokesman for house speaker Michael Madigan gives it little chance of surfacing anytime soon.

But Ford hasn't given up. Over the summer he hosted a town hall meeting in Oak Park on marijuana policy, and most of the 50 people who attended said they favored decriminalization or outright legalization. In response to the feedback, Ford plans to lower the fines in his bill.

Despite indifference from the house leadership, Ford says support for change is growing on both sides of the aisle. "Now everyone's saying, 'I want to meet with you—let's make it work,'" he says. "I think people are seeing it as a real issue because of the state fiscal problems."

He says he's planning to meet with other legislators and representatives from the state police and Governor Pat Quinn's office in early December. Neither returned our calls for comment.

But Representative Dennis Reboletti, a west-suburban Republican, says he'll be part of the discussions because he'd like to figure out a way to save money and get more drug users into treatment.

Misdemeanor cannabis possession "isn't the crime of the century," says Reboletti, a former narcotics prosecutor in Will County. Yet he stresses that he won't let lawbreakers off the hook. He isn't even comfortable referring to it as a "decriminalization" bill. "If we're imposing fines or treatment, that's not decriminalizing it," he says.

Building a political coalition around marijuana policy can be extraordinarily touchy. Reboletti opposed a medical marijuana bill that fell short in the house in May, saying he was concerned that it violated federal law. On the other hand, the medical marijuana bill's chief sponsor, Skokie Democrat Lou Lang, says he's not sure he can support decriminalization legislation.

"At first I opposed La Shawn's bill because I thought it would undermine the effort on my bill," Lang says. "But now I'm not so sure. Maybe it would scare people into the medical marijuana side."

For his part, Ford says he's not satisfied with his bill either—he thinks legalization should be discussed, but for practical reasons it's not anywhere close to the conversation yet.

"Legalization of marijuana is not an issue for me right now," he says. "Legalization of marijuana is probably not going to happen until you and I retire."

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