Marijuana decriminalization bill sent to Rauner’s desk

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Police won’t be able to arrest Illinoisans for having small amounts of marijuana if a bill passed by lawmakers gets Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature.

On Thursday, the Illinois Senate joined the House in passing a bill that makes possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana a noncriminal offense. Instead, police would issue a ticket and a fine of no more than $125.

The Senate also sent Rauner a bill that would extend the state’s delayed medical marijuana program, which has an imminent expiration date.

But it’s unclear whether Rauner will sign the pot bills.

He opposes the extension, and Catherine Kelly, a spokeswoman for Rauner, reiterated on Thursday the governor’s stance that there’s “a lot of time left to evaluate a pilot program, and we should not extend the program until it has been fully evaluated.”

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As for the so-called decriminalization bill, she would say only, “The governor will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk.”

The decriminalization bill would allow for the civil penalty to be expunged from a person’s record. The bill also clarifies, for the first time, how much THC, an intoxicating chemical in marijuana, a driver can have in his system to be considered an impaired driver. It’s similar to what drivers who drink too much alcohol face, said Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who sponsored the bill in the House.

Some Illinois municipalities have similar local ordinances that allow police to simply ticket those in possession of small amounts of marijuana. In Chicago, police can issue tickets for possession under 15 grams, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports the bill. But under state law now, for first-time offenders, possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor. Possession of more than that is a felony.

Using marijuana is “wrong and I would encourage the children of this state . . . to abstain from the use of this substance,” Sen. Michael Noland (D-Elgin), the sponsor, said on the Senate floor. “But people do imbibe . . . and it should not be something that is a scarlet letter in their social lives [and] also in their professional lives.”

But the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police opposes this bill and will ask Rauner not to allow it to become law, said Laimutis Nargelenas, manager of governmental relations for the group.

“Every six months, the ticket issued is expunged and it allows people to continue to possess these amounts,” he said, adding that 15 grams of marijuana is about 30 joints.

And police officials are worried that the level of marijuana allowed in a person’s system is too high and could lead to more accidents, Nargelenas said.

Cassidy, though, disagrees. She said lawmakers worked with prosecutors. She said the bill makes “impaired driving with regard to marijuana more easily prosecuted.”

Marijuana advocates say the bill will make sure police all over the state follow the same rules.

“Folks in different parts of the state with different background and [of] different colors are not all treated the same and it’s because a lot of cities have adopted measures that decriminalize marijuana, but not all have, and that creates a situation in which people are treated differently,” said Chris Lindsey, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Some lawmakers didn’t support the bill, which passed 37 to 19.

“We have way too many people in jail and way too many people whose lives are affected by minor drug arrests, and I think we need legislation to change that,” said Sen. Jim Oberweis (R-North Aurora).

But this bill, he said, isn’t it.

”We can do much better,” Oberweis said.

The Illinois Department of Corrections estimates the bill would save nearly $30 million over the first 10 years if the bill becomes law. That’s doesn’t include the financial impact on county jails and state’s attorney’s offices, which mostly end up dealing with low-level drug possession cases.

Noland said he expects the governor will sign the bill.

“Considering that he has formed a commission on sentencing reform . . . and the charge of that commission is to reduce jail and prison population, I have to believe he would consider it favorably,” Noland said after the bill was heard on the Senate floor.

The medical marijuana program extension bill, which seeks to extend the program four years from when the first dispensary begins officially operating, passed 33 to 16 with six senators voting present.

The program now is set to expire at the end of 2017, causing sleepless nights for entrepreneurs building multimillion-dollar medical marijuana farms across the state.

Sen. William Haine (D-Alton) sponsored the bill and told senators, “the inept rollout of the program by the previous administration” has caused the need for the extension.

Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who has championed the bill and the medical marijuana program, said he hopes the governor will sign the extension. Otherwise, it’s veto-proof in the House and there’s a “very strong majority” in the Senate, Lang said. “The governor knows what to do.”

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