Commentary: Modernize the marijuana laws in Illinois

IPI_LogoBy Bryant Jackson-Green
Illinois Policy Institute

It’s time to rethink Illinois’ approach to low-level drug offenses.

Whatever one may think of the wisdom of marijuana legalization, putting people in jail for years is hardly a rational way to deal with low-level drug offenses. Illinois has the fifth-highest arrest rate for marijuana possession in the United States.

According to research by the Vera Institute, it costs Illinois taxpayers over $38,000 a year to keep just one person in prison. Illinois prisons are already substantially overcrowded, holding 48,227 inmates as of mid-February.

That’s over 150 percent of the capacity state prisons were designed to hold. Illinois prisons are in the midst of a serious budget crisis and face being unable to meet payroll as soon as April.

Of course, not everyone caught with marijuana ends up in prison. But arrests, jails and court proceedings all cost money too. Illinois’ limited criminal-justice resources need to be oriented first and foremost toward addressing crimes with victims, not personal conduct.

A recently introduced bill updating Illinois’ marijuana law would be a significant shift toward creating a more fiscally responsible and cost-effective drug policy in the Land of Lincoln.

House Bill 218, introduced by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, would amend the Cannabis Control Act by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. If passed, the new law would punish marijuana possession under 30 grams with a fine of $100, and would lower penalties for possession of over 30 grams but less than 500. Illinois wouldn’t be alone in decriminalizing; 17 states and Washington, D.C. have already decriminalized marijuana, starting with Oregon in 1973.

The Illinois Policy Institute hasn’t taken a position on marijuana legalization. Decriminalization is not legalization: it doesn’t allow people to possess large amounts of marijuana or sell it. But it does allow people who possess small amounts to pay a relatively small fine instead of facing jail time. Right now, possession of 30 grams of marijuana is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison. And anyone holding more than 30 grams faces at least a class 4 felony, which comes with a sentence of up to three years in prison.

HB 218 would not legalize the possession or sale of marijuana in Illinois (although another bill introduced this legislative session, Senate Bill 753, would legalize possession of small amounts). But it recognizes the simple truth that it makes no sense to consume our justice system’s resources, or to take taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars, to punish low-level possession.

Given the state of Illinois’ finances, residents simply can’t afford to keep relying on incarceration to address every activity someone disapproves of.

Decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession won’t solve all of Illinois’ criminal-justice or budget issues. But it is an easy first step to cutting back on the state’s prison population and bringing Illinois’ budget under control.

illinoispolicy.org

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