By Alex Hirsch
Just as Illinois residents, politicians and law enforcement officials begin to prepare for the implementation of medical marijuana; new reports have surfaced regarding the possibility of decriminalized recreational use of cannabis in the near future.
John Fritchey, Commissioner of Cook County – America’s second most populous county – has requested that his state take a deeper look into the realistic possibility of legalizing or at the least decriminalizing cannabis.
“The Illinois Legislature should follow the successful lead of other states and start taking meaningful steps toward a workable framework to allow the responsible sale and use of cannabis,” Fritchey said in a statement.
Commissioner Fritchey was joined by other Illinois lawmakers who see the current system as broken, archaic and racially biased. It’s a known fact that despite cannabis usage as fairly equal amongst different races, minorities have historically been the primary target of drug arrests and prosecution.
According to a 2011 story by the Chicago Reader, blacks were arrested 15 times more often than whites for possession of marijuana. Moreover, by the time those cases go through the justice system the rate of conviction is 40 times higher for blacks than whites.
But the apparent racial disparity may not be the true reason why Illinois is mulling legalization. According to a January 2014 report by the nonprofit organization group State Budget Solutions, Illinois had a state debt of over $321 billion. On top of that, the ACLU reports that Illinois spent nearly $221 million fighting cannabis in 2011 alone.
This spending doesn’t necessarily take into account the costs of corruption as well. Just last month five police officers from Chicago and the north suburban community of Glenview were accused of lying on the witness stand during the trial of a 23-year-old suspected of trafficking marijuana. His case has since been thrown out along with dozens of other pending cases by the officers.
Although full legalization may still be a few years away, three bills aimed at decriminalizing cannabis are currently in the Illinois House of Representatives waiting to move forward.
A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) is similar to Cassidy’s bill, but it also lowers the penalties for possessing marijuana plants. HB 4299 would make it a possession a petty offense with a fine of up to $100.
A third and final bill, HB 4091, proposed by Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Chicago) would result in a ticket for marijuana possession. Possession of marijuana would still be considered a criminal offense under his bill. Additionally, possessing a large amount of marijuana near a school would become a class X felony and would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a fine of $200,000.
It’s extremely unlikely any vote on legalization would come in 2014 so most progressive lawmakers and citizens can set their hopes on 2016 as the year marijuana prohibition will end in Illinois.
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The answer came back loud and clear, it is time.
That was the message from a cohort of elected officials at a press conference Monday in downtown Chicago that called for the legalization of recreational Marijuana in Illinois.
“The main difference between the War on Drugs and Prohibition is that, after 40 yrs, this country still has not acknowledged that the War on Drugs is a failure,” said Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey.
In what’s perhaps the strongest show of support yet for legalizing recreational Marijuana in Illinois, Mr. Fritchey was joined by State Representatives Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) and Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) in calling for a task force to address all aspects of legalizing recreational Marijuana.
“We can find a way to do this and look at what other states have done, and cherry pick the good ideas, dismiss the bad ideas and find a workable policy that recognizes what we’re doing now simply is not right,” Mr. Fritchey said.
Facing an empty state treasury, and a losing War on Drugs, some elected officials are seeing Marijuana as a lucrative option to boost tax revenue. In Colorado, where recreational Marijuana was recently legalized, the state netted roughly $2-M in tax revenue from licensed dispensaries during the 1st month of sales alone.
Illinois is still in the midst of crafting rules for its medical Marijuana pilot program, set to become the strictest in the nation.
Mr. Fritchey and others acknowledged the statewide legalization of Marijuana for recreational use is a ways off, but believe decriminalization is the 1st step.
Beyond tax revenue, Mr. Fritchey said decriminalization could soothe other issues, like the racial disparity in drug enforcement efforts and arrests.
“You see people getting swept off the streets on a daily basis on the South Side and the West Side,” Mr. Fritchey said, referencing predominantly Black and Latino areas of Chicago. “You do not see kids getting arrested in Lincoln Park.”
The pro-legalization lawmakers are not without their opponents, including the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. At the conference, the group said legalizing recreational weed could be particularly dangerous for teens and motorists who may drive under the influence.
“The sky will not fall when Marijuana is decriminalized, and public opinion moves faster than legislators’. Look for Illinois to move immediately to decriminalize Marijuana as its 1st step toward legalizing recreational use of Marijuana.