Pot decriminalization bill flames out, sponsor says she’s not finished trying

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — Small-amount marijuana possession remains a crime in Illinois.

The choice by House Democrats this week not to address Gov. Bruce Rauner’s amendatory veto of House Bill 218 means the deadline for final action on the marijuana decriminalization bill will pass.

Rauner issued his veto Aug. 14, and the House is now not scheduled to return until late September.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, did not seek to make possession legal. However, it would have placed possession of small amounts on par with a traffic offense.

Possession of 15 grams or less, roughly a half-ounce downward, would have become a civil-law violation punishable by a maximum fine of $125.

Rauner largely found the bill acceptable, but his amendatory veto sought three substantive changes. Those would have:

  • Decreased the maximum amount of the drug allowed from 15 grams to 10 grams.
  • Increased fines from a range of $55 to $125 to, instead, $100 to $200.
  • Toughened the standard for presumed impairment for offenses such as driving under the influence. Kelly’s bill put the testing standard at 5 nanograms of THC, the active chemical, per milliliter of whole blood. Rauner wanted it at 15 nanograms per milliliter.

Cassidy said she wasn’t disheartened by HB 218’s demise and would try to craft new legislation that balances the concerns of the original bill’s supporters with those of the governor.

“I think it’s important that cooler heads prevail and we keep an eye on things we agree on and find a path to get those enacted into law,” she said.

Kelly said she might not wait until next session but instead seek other legislation that might be amended to reach the same goals.

She said she believes the proponents of the bill and the governor’s office are committed to those goals, including:

  • Bringing uniformity to a patchwork of more than 100 local government ordinances that vary regarding amount of the drug and size of the fine.
  • Implementing sentencing reform and decreasing prison crowding.
  • Reducing the inordinate impact of low-level possession charges, especially on minority and inner city young people.

HB 218 originally passed the House by a 62 to 53 vote with a handful of House Republicans joining in its support. It cleared the Senate on a vote of 37 to 19.

As evidenced by other votes taken in the House on Wednesday, a full override of the governor’s veto didn’t seem likely, Kelley said.

Asked if she’d considered a concurrence vote, which would mean accepting the governor’s changes, Kelly said she’d been advised that Rauner’s revisions were non-compliant or, essentially, beyond the acceptable limits of revision.

House Republicans argued that Democrats were, for at least Wednesday, throwing up a roadblock to keep members from considering any of Rauner’s amendatory vetoes.

“Let’s be clear, we all know what’s going on here,” said Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove, the GOP’s debate leader. “None of these amendatory vetoes have been even looked at.”

He and other Republicans argued Democratic leadership were ginning up rules interpretations and abusing legislative process to block all amendatory vetoes simply to thwart Rauner.

Sandack said that was “horrific” and “part of a larger, partisan turf battle.”

For those bills debated Wednesday, at least, Democrats argued the governor’s revisions had simply gone further than the bill sponsors would have liked, and it was perfectly within those lawmakers’ rights to seek override rather than concurrence.

Illinois News Network journalist Greg Bishop contributed to this report.

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