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Seize chance to decriminalize personal-use pot amounts

Pot Topics is a curated collection of the top cannabis stories. | AP photo

Pot Topics is a curated collection of the top cannabis stories. | AP photo

Illinois lawmakers have a solid shot of passing a law to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana — and of seeing Gov. Bruce Rauner actually sign that legislation.

They should run with it.

Lawmakers last year sent Rauner a bill to make possession of up to 15 grams of pot a ticketable — rather than a criminal — offense, but Rauner vetoed it, saying it would allow people to carry too much pot and that stiffer fines than $55 to $125 were warranted.

A new version of that bill, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), picks up language from Rauner’s amendatory veto. It would allow possessors of even less marijuana – 10 grams – to face slightly larger fines, of $100 to $200.

The language of the latest bill may not be perfect, but it stands the best chance of getting signed by Rauner. The Senate has passed it; we urge the House to do the same because the general principles the bill reflects are sound.

EDITORIAL

SB 2228 would allow those caught with personal-use amounts of pot to avoid jail, have their tickets automatically expunged periodically, and avoid a criminal record that could hurt their future chances at jobs or housing.

By not clogging up the court system, the measure could save taxpayers as much as $24 million a year and free up police to focus on more serious crimes.

We are talking about, at most, possession of 10 grams of weed — an amount that, based on federal standards for medical marijuana, would equate to 11 to 13 joints. That’s generally considered a personal-use amount, says the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports the bill.

Some law enforcement officials back the proposal, too. That includes the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

The bill packs an important safety valve. Steans said it would still allow local governments to require additional fines or drug treatment. That could be an important caveat for lawmakers from more conservative Illinois districts.

More than 100 Illinois local governments, including Chicago, have already removed at least some criminal penalties for possession of lower-level amounts of marijuana, Steans notes. So the bill reflects a growing state— and even national— trend toward marijuana decriminalization.

The bill also could smooth out what appears to be uneven implementation of some ordinances decriminalizing small amounts of pot. Marijuana prosecution, Steans says, has become a “festering site of inequity in Illinois,’’ with blacks arrested at seven times the rate of whites.

For example, after Chicago passed a 2012 ordinance that allowed ticketing for small amounts of pot, disparities in Chicago marijuana arrest rates increased, a 2014 Roosevelt University study found. Some Chicago neighborhoods with the largest black populations saw large jumps in marijuana arrests, while some heavily-white neighborhoods saw large drops, the study showed.

In other words, given a choice, it appeared that Chicago police were more likely to charge African-American pot possessors and give whites only tickets.

Steans’ bill would ensure that no one in Illinois could be criminally charged for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana.

Illinois Family Institute lobbyist Ralph Rivera worries the bill treats teenage offenders the same as adults, and carries no specific provisions requiring treatment for repeat offenders. Rivera favors requiring defendants caught a third time within a year to appear in court so a judge can evaluate whether they need drug treatment.

“If you are caught three times in a year, you must be doing it every day because nobody catches it every day,’’ Rivera said. “We think there should be a cap on this, where there should be intervention, looking at treatment, some type of supervision.”

But does such treatment really help? Chris Lindsey, Illinois legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, notes he has yet to see a study proving treatment for marijuana usage changes behavior. Cara Smith, chief policy director for Sheriff Dart, agrees. Cook County Jail treatment programs target heroin or other drugs, Smith said.

And Steans notes that the bill allows local jurisdictions to add on such provisions for treatment or stiffer fines.

Said Steans:  “We don’t want to make any other changes to the language because we don’t want to give the governor any reasons to change it.”

Given the budget stalemate, it seems a shame to not to seize this chance to pass Rauner-friendly legislation with so many pluses. It can always be amended later if red flags raised by critics prove true.

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