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Cassidy bill proposes decriminilization for pot possession in Illinois

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For many people, one of the most recent pressing social issues, other than marriage equality, are efforts to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana – an issue that, in particular, disproportionately affects racial minorities.

In Illinois, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) has announced her sponsorship of a bill – HB 5708 – that would, in effect, “make possession of an ounce of marijuana a petty offense, punishable only by a fine of no more than $100,” according to a report by the local CBS affiliate.

Illinois would then follow the lead of sixteen states that have decreased either the criminality, or added a fine, or less; most notably in Alaska, California and Maine.

There are also two other bills pending in Illinois that would prescribe tickets – similar to speeding tickets – instead of arrest for the possession of small amounts of pot.

Proponents say the bills are meant to save money from already straitened state coffers, and to avoid penalizing people – often with long term consequences in housing, educational loans, professional licenses, and other discrete areas of a person’s life.

Much like marriage equality for gays and lesbians, public opinion has changed dramatically towards the use and consumption of marijuana, and “Illinois is already preparing to launch a medical marijuana program that would allow those who suffer from certain diseases to use the drug without penalty.”

Less than two years ago, the Chicago City Council, (shortly after the election of Mayor Rahm Emanuel), in a 43-3 vote overwhelmingly passed a vote to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In an emailed statement, Cassidy clarified for me several reasons why she is sponsoring this bill: “Marijuana decriminalization is important in many ways, primarily [to preserve] law enforcement resources and [eliminate] devastating criminal records. We've seen many states and municipalities take this approach with no negative consequences. This is a critically important step that will affect thousands in our state.”

Cassidy, who is no stranger to the moribund Illinois state economy, battered and beleaguered by pension woes, emphasized that, “Resources are zero sum, especially with the current state of our budget. Even if we could find those funds, they would be better spent on treatment of addictive drugs and prosecution of violent criminals. “

Despite the reduction in volume of pot busts, after the Chicago bill, there are enormous reserves of time and money still spent. Chicago Reader columnist Mick Dumke in a recent piece noted that, according to Chicago Police Department Records for 2013, there “at least $23 million and 46,000 police hours, the equivalent of officers using 5,750 entire shifts to process low-level pot arrests.”

Advocates also point out the need for a paradigm shift in how judicial understanding can be changed. Of them, one of the most prominent is Kathie Kane Willis, the co-founder and director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, a research institute at Roosevelt University, and who noted her support at the recent forum when panelists said that “there needs to be judicial education and discretion, especially with statewide increase in money for drug treatment.”

But treatment issues are only one of the many aspects of the current laws that show dramatic inequality of arrest and convictions between blacks and whites. This racial divide, as Dumke said shows that while “studies have found similar marijuana usage rates across racial groups, 78 percent of those arrested since August 2012 or carrying small amounts of pot were black, according to police department data.”

The breakdown shows that the next group negatively affected were Hispanics at 17 percent, and a meager 4 percent for those who were white – and “virtually the same breakdown as before the new possession ordinance went into effect.”

While police often say that writing tickets takes as much time as full bookings, the larger issue of race, in a still segregated city, will be one that will have to be tackled, piece by piece.

Cassidy acknowledges that the role of crime fighting is inherent in her bill, and she notes “this would free up critical police resources to tackle violent crimes. Some may be skeptical of changes like this, but this policy has a strong track record of success.”

On another plane, The Rev. Al Sharp, formerly executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, and also the acting director of the Community Renewal Society has said, in the past, and also at the Roosevelt conference, that the residual effects on access to public housing, federal student financial aid, and other programs is, “collateral damage” and in the long term, punitive, and unjust.

In a telephone interview with Ed Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, on Monday, he also told me, using Sharp’s term, that the Cassidy bill avoids the “collateral damage in housing, financial aid and public housing,” and that people who are found to be in possession of such small amounts, “we feel should not be criminalized.”

There are two other bills pending that want to change current laws on pot use, and conviction. And, they also prescribe tickets – effectively treated like speeding tickets – instead of arrest for possessing small amounts of pot.

A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, is similar to Cassidy’s bill, but it also lowers the penalty for possession. Currently, possessing up to four marijuana plants is a class A misdemeanor, “but Mitchell’s bill, House Bill 4299, would make it a petty offense with a fine of up to $100. Possessing between five and 20 plants would become a class A misdemeanor under Mitchell’s bill, instead of the current class 4 felony.”

Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Chicago, has the third bill, also calling for decreased penalties for marijuana possessions. Although House Bill 4091 would result in a ticket for marijuana possession, the bill would still hold possession of marijuana as a criminal offense instead of a petty offense.

But significantly for advocates and supporters of reform, “possessing a large amount of marijuana near a school would become a class X felony under Zalewski’s bill, punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a fine of $200,000.”

Cassidy’s bill, which the ACLU favors, focuses on less criminality, not decriminalization of the possession of pot, and she stresses that she has “worked closely with stakeholders to strive towards the most agreeable approach that takes all factors into account. “

One significant aspect of the Cassidy bill, different than the other two bills, and that is another reason it has the support of the ACLU, is because the offense will be expunged; or according to Yhonka “eliminates the paper record” from the person’s file.

Cassidy also addressed the fact that her bill does not call for decriminalization, something that many reforms its have wanted, by saying, “With medical marijuana passing last year, it would be difficult to push towards full legalization now, despite the fact that our state could certainly use the revenue. This is an important step towards modernizing our drug laws.”

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