Bill would decrease pot penalties; small amounts would draw only ticket, fine

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

Illinois_News_Network_logoSPRINGFIELD — A bill that cleared the Illinois House on Thursday by a bipartisan 62-53 vote would put possession of small amounts of marijuana on par with traffic tickets.

The proposal by Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, would make a possession of 15 grams (about half an ounce) or less a civil law offense punishable by a maximum fine of $125.

The measure, House Bill 218, does not make marijuana a legal substance.

Cassidy said her intent is to bring uniformity to a patchwork of more than 100 local government ordinances that vary tremendously regarding amount of the drug and size of the fine.

Cassidy and bill supporters said the measure also is in line with the governor’s call for sentencing reform and decreased prison crowding, and it frees police time for more pressing matters.

And, not least, the changes would lessen the inordinate impact of low-level possession charges on minority and inner city young people, said legislators arguing for the bill.

The sponsor said she was attempting to remedy an “unjust and confusing system” in which “where you live and what you look like dictates whether or not you will be arrested for extremely low-level marijuana possession.”

Rep. John Cabello, a police detective by trade, supported the bill.

“We’re being smart on crime, we’re not being soft on crime,” said Cabello, R-

Machesney Park.

The time of both police and the courts can be put to uses more pressing than low-level marijuana offenses, he said.

Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, said the bill was a step to help make sure another “entire generation of young men, most of them black and brown, will not be caught in a cycle of prison and poverty.”

Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, said the bill was “right on crime” and added, “reducing prison populations is a goal of this governor and should be a goal of every member of this House as well.”

The governor’s office had no comment on the bill Thursday.

The bill also sets standard for determining a presumptive level of driving under the influence of marijuana.

Cassidy said marijuana stays in the system a long time and tests for any presence might show levels of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) inaccurately presuming impairment in a person who had smoked weeks ago.

The new standards call for measures of 15 nanograms per milliliter of whole blood or 25 nanograms of other bodily substance before impairment is presumed. Currently, any level of THC can trigger arrest.

Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, expressed reservations about the impairment measures and voted against the bill.

Rep. Keith Weller, R-Oswego, who also voted against the bill, had questions about enhanced penalties for injury accidents and a clause regarding expunging minors’ records.

But no opponents rose to speak directly against the bill.

The Illinois Family Institute, which had previously expressed opposition, did not return a Thursday afternoon call for comment.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where it is sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago.

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