Two weeks ago, the Cook County Board of Commissioners, with little fanfare, passed an ordinance decriminalizing low levels (10 grams or less) of marijuana possession in the non-incorporated areas of the County.
Offenders will receive a $200 fine rather than a criminal charge that could haunt them for the rest of their lives.
This action was a direct result of the PCG conference "New Directions in Drug Policy for Illinois" that PCG organized at Roosevelt University on June 12. Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-1st) sponsored the ordinance. A member of her staff had attended the conference, heard that Chicago Heights had taken a similar step, returned to her office and said “We’ve got to do this.”
At first glance, the new ordinance might not seem very important. The number of arrests for marijuana possession in the area affected by the ordinance is small. But this change is already being noticed by other municipalities around the state. From as far south as Decatur, one of the attendees of our conference called to say that he is leading a group of ministers to push for a similar ordinance there.
And the ordinance is important for deeper reasons. By drawing attention, it is prompting the public to think about whether existing drug laws and their enforcement make moral and economic sense.
Our country has become a prison nation. One in every 100 adults is incarcerated in the United States, with the rapid increase since the early 1970’s due to tougher, more punitive drug laws.
The racial disparity underlying these figures is shameful. About 9% of Whites use drugs in our society, and the figure is about the same for Non-whites. Why is it, then, that 86% of those in prison for drug offenses are Non-white?
Equal protection under law is a fundamental tenet of our faith. In Illinois, we are failing miserably by this standard. A Human Rights Watch Report in 2000 stated that Illinois leads the nation in the racial disparity of those in prison for drug offenses.
Much of this disparity, of course, has to do with unequal enforcement. Street drug trafficking is much more visible to police in poor urban than in wealthier, mostly white suburbs. In Chicago, spaces around schools, parks, and other special areas are designated as mandatory “enforcement zones.” This now covers 80% of the entire City.
Commissioner Collins’ ordinance decriminalizes an offense that has burdened offenders with a life-long criminal record. Indirectly, it prompts us to consider the possibility that regarding drug offenses as primarily a public health problem is a better response than prohibition — a more effective use of public resources and more likely to produce productive citizens.
Surely even those who argue that drug use should be met with severe punishment would agree on the following: it is wrong to stigmatize for the rest of their lives those who have committed only minor offenses, and that those who need treatment to overcome the disease of addiction should have a chance to receive it.
At our conference, Rep. Lou Lang (D-16th) described his efforts to get a medical marijuana bill passed in Illinois. (We are close; this may happen next year). He was asked why a conference focusing on drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration should include a discussion of marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana. His answer was compelling: “It is because we have to learn to think differently about drugs, and drug policy in our society. Starting with marijuana helps us to do this.”
In the year ahead, PCG will be seeking to build a statewide network that focuses on local drug laws, including marijuana. We will use these opportunities to bring forward the questions of drug policy more broadly. It is tragic that we have become a prison nation; it is backward thinking to view prohibition and punishment as the central answers to drug problems in this country.