Best-Kept Secret

Decriminalize marijuana? The fact that over 70 municipalities have already done so may be one of the best-kept secrets in Illinois.

Two years ago, PCG staff noticed a one-paragraph story in the Chicago Tribune stating that Chicago Heights had decriminalized low levels of cannabis. We decided to gather data on how many other municipalities had taken the same action.

We found that Antioch, Buffalo Grove, Carbondale, Northbrook, Springfield, Zion, and 66 other municipalities in Illinois—including 4.7 million, or 37% of the state’s 12.8 million residents—have some form of cannabis decriminalization. In effect, these local governments treat low-level marijuana possession as a “traffic ticket” rather than a criminal offense.

Because marijuana is illegal under state law, only “home rule” units, which under the 1970 Illinois state constitution were given greater responsibility for local decision-making, can take this action.

Municipalities with a population of more than 25,000 automatically qualify. Those with less require approval of a referendum in order to achieve this status.

There are 153 such units in Illinois. Of this total, at least 72—almost one-half—have decriminalized cannabis. Half of these have done so since 2000, and 11 in the last two years.

It is possible that Chicago will be next. On October 23, County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-24), joined by two Chicago aldermen, Danny Solis (D-25) and Walter Burnett (D-27), publicly called on the City Council to pass a decriminalization ordinance. Under their proposal, those possessing 10 grams or less of cannabis would be fined $200 and required to complete 10 hours of community service.

Passing this ordinance will be an act of both decency and common sense. In Chicago, over 60% of those arrested for low-level marijuana possession are never charged or convicted. But in too many cases those arrested sit in Cook County jail, often for as long three weeks, before their case is dismissed.

African Americans account for 78% of those arrested, 89% of those convicted, and 92% of those jailed for low-level marijuana possession even though drug use by race is roughly the same.

About a month ago, I was speaking at a luncheon in Waukegan, sponsored by a inspirational group, the Coalition to Reduce Recidivism. I decided to announce the results of our survey by reading off at random some of the names of the municipalities on our list. As I got though about 10 names, someone on the dais yelled out, “All white.” I could only respond, “You’re right.”

But the proposed ordinance is about far more than race. An arrest, even for such a comparatively slight offense, is a ball-and-chain that never goes away. Does it make sense to cripple someone’s life for the kind of mistake we are talking about here?

The waste of public resources, 84,000 hours of police resources annually in Chicago, is enormous. Most of the municipalities on our list probably got tired of paying police time, often overtime, to take those accused to court only to see the cases dismissed.

The sponsors of the Chicago ordinance do not encourage the use of marijuana, nor do we. But we have to ask about the fairness of arresting people for possessing it when alcohol and prescription drugs are both legal even if far more dangerous. Kids notice and react to hypocrisy in all forms.

As we gather around our Thanksgiving table this year, I suggest that we give at least a momentary thought to the youth sitting in Cook County jail because they were arrested for low-level marijuana possession, even as many of us are opening a bottle of wine.

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