THE LOOP — Reform groups pushed for the statewide decriminalization of low-level marijuana possession Thursday, but a leading law-enforcement official criticized their efforts while backing another proposal.
The groups called a news conference at the Thompson Center in support of a bill sponsored by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) that would decriminalize possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana, or a little more than an ounce. According to the groups, an average joint consists of about 2.5 grams.
"It is a decriminalization bill," said the Rev. Alexander Sharp, executive director of the Community Renewal Society.
Cassidy's bill would allow localities to assess fines of up to $100 for possession, but would not allow those fines to be posted on a person's criminal record. Sharp said arrests "fall disproportionately on individuals who are minorities and of low income in our society, and that's simply not right."
Chris Lindsey, of the Marijuana Policy Project, said African-Americans were 7.6 times more likely to be arrested for pot possession, even though "all statistics indicate that the rates of use compared with African-Americans and whites are the same."
Lindsey said a marijuana arrest appearing on a background check can cost a person employment and acceptance in public housing or a school, as well as student loans.
Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, said problems existed on both sides of law enforcement.
"One of the things I want to hit on is there have been 1 million arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession in the State of Illinois from 1975 to 2009," she said, adding there were 50,000 a year, accounting for 150,000 hours of police time.
"This really bogs down the system," Kane-Willis said. "There has to be a better way."
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has said that's an admirable goal to cut police time for marijuana misdemeanors, but opposes Cassidy's bill.
"We opposed [the bill] specifically because it allows a person to receive an unlimited amount of 'regulatory citations' for possession of less than 30 grams" of pot, said Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly, adding that it "also automatically eliminates any record of the citation.
"Our proposal ... would allow a person to receive up to two petty-offense citations in his or her lifetime for possession of less than 30 grams of [pot], and on the third offense he or she would receive a Class A misdemeanor charge," Daly said. "Our position is that repeat offenders should eventually face a misdemeanor penalty."
Lindsey said otherwise marijuana laws would remain the same under either proposal.
"This does not change any laws relating to sale or distribution," he said, adding that a recent statewide poll of 769 citizens showed 63 percent favored decriminalization.
Yet he allowed that decriminalization might strengthen the position of illegal sellers on the street.
"The right solution is to regulate," Lindsey said. "Long-term, we do need to look at undermining the criminal element here. Our society is better taxing and regulating the entire process," as in Washington and Colorado.
In Chicago, members of the City Council have sent conflicting signals on the issue. Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) has been receptive to legalization and earlier this week in an event at the Hideout said, "I'd be totally in favor of it." Yet Ald. Edward Burke (14th) has been resistant to medical marijuana and this week put forth a resolution for a referendum that seeks to give cities like Chicago more say over the location of dispensaries.
Kane-Willis said pressure was building on the General Assembly to accept legalization in a state strapped for cash, especially after the implementation of the medical-marijuana program this year.
"I think it is a potential revenue source, and I think people are open to looking at that as a way of dealing with some of the budget crises," she added. "We're an incremental state, so we like to do things a little bit at a time, and that's how we tend to make change."