Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Monday pointed to Northwestern University students in Evanston smoking weed with impunity as an example of the racial disparities in enforcement associated with the drug.
While addressing an Illinois House-Senate committee tasked with reviewing the implications of legalizing marijuana in Illinois — Preckwinkle is for it, by the way — she told a quick anecdote about her daughter, Jen, visiting a friend who attends Northwestern.
“My youngest, who is college aged, went to visit one of her friends up at Northwestern and she came back and she said, ‘Mom, you won’t believe it. The kids walk up and down the streets smoking dope, and nobody says anything.’
“I said: ‘Yes, Jen,'” Preckwinkle recalled in an exhausted voice.
“And then she said, ‘You know, if my friends and I did this in our neighborhood we’d be arrested.'”
“I said: ‘Yes, Jen.'”
The Preckwinkles live in the Kenwood neighborhood.
The disparity that dawned on her daughter is what Preckwinkle wants to see addressed.
“Rarely do we see white college students or young professionals, suburban high school students or their prosperous parents arrested or detained for the use or possession of marijuana,” Preckwinkle said while testifying at the Bilandic Building downtown.
“Maybe it’s easy for the general public to ignore this disparity, but it shouldn’t be,” she said.
“Our communities are informally divided into zones where marijuana arrests are made and those areas where they don’t happen,” she said referencing a 2016 Sun-Times report that highlighted the issue.
Northwestern University spokesman Alan Cubbage, reached by phone Monday morning, declined to comment on Preckwinkle’s testimony.
Following the legislative hearing, Preckwinkle found the question of whether she ever smoked marijuana rather humorous.
“So I’ve never smoked any marijuana, I’ve had half a dozen drinks in my life and probably half a dozen cigarettes,” she said, before interrupting herself in a fit of laughter.
“I have sort of a puritanical personal style on the subject, you know, partly it’s a result of coming from a family where alcohol was a real problem.”
Preckwinkle’s hope that legalizing marijuana will take undue police pressure off people of color is in line with her efforts to reform the cash-for-bail system that for years has stranded poor, non-violent and most often minority drug offenders in Cook County jail.
The journey to legalization in Illinois — or not — will be guided by whoever wins the governors office.
Gov. Bruce Rauner said in December that he doesn’t support legalizing recreational marijuana.
Democratic candidates J.B. Pritzker and state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, are on board with legalization, while businessman Chris Kennedy says he supports decriminalizing marijuana but wants to see more studies done to understand the effects of legalizing the drug.
That means if Pritzker or Biss win the gubernatorial election, Illinois could see legalization of recreational marijuana.
State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, in January introduced legislation that would legalize and tax recreational marijuana — using the money as a new revenue source for the state. It would legalize the possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana and allow facilities to sell marijuana products. Steans said she’s holding onto the bill until 2019 — after next year’s gubernatorial election.
In 2016, Rauner extended a medical marijuana program that started doling out weed to patients in 2015. Later that year he signed a bill that decriminalized the possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana, making it a ticketable offense subject to fines of $100 to $200.
Legalization essentially means adults won’t be arrested, fined or otherwise penalized for recreational marijuana use or possession. Decriminalization is less sweeping. It generally means violators will not be subjected to criminal prosecutions for smaller amounts, often treating it as a civil offense, punishable only by fines — not jail time.