Marijuana fine councilman suggested drastic cut

By Michael Semaca

The Urbana City Council is considering an ordinance that would reduce the fine for marijuana possession from $300 to $5.

The proposition was made March 14 by Councilman Aaron Ammons, who firmly believes that the cost of a cannabis ticket is too high.

“The fine for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana should be reduced because it’s exorbitant and because the $300 fine causes an economic burden on poor people,” Ammons said in an email.

“The fine for possession of cannabis paraphernalia should be lowered to less than the fine for cannabis possession.”

For Ammons, the high levels of ticketing is specifically detrimental to racial minorities. A study by the Traffic Stop Task Force showed the disproportionate number of African Americans being ticketed in the city, and argued that the high fine unfairly impacts minorities.

Ammons, co-founded the Champaign-Urbana advocacy group CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, with his wife and Urbana State Representative, Carol Ammons. The group primarily focuses on racial injustice and equality at the community level.

He also implied that the current fee is so high because it helps the city of Urbana bring in additional revenue and is not designed to discourage marijuana use.

“The Department of Justice just sent out a letter to all 50 states highlighting the fact that balancing budgets or intentionally using traffic and city ordinance violations to generate revenue was unconstitutional and could be considered a violation of one’s Civil Rights,” he said.

However, the proposal was not unanimously praised by his fellow council members.

Some members expressed concern that a lower ticket fine would lead to an increase in marijuana related arrests rather than tickets, Ammons said.

However, he believes the change could bring Urbana’s arrests and ticketing rates more in line with Champaign’s. Currently, Urbana police tend to arrest marijuana users far more often than their Champaign counterparts.

“Given the fact that Champaign Police issue tickets 74 percent of the time and only arrest citizens 26 percent of the time for the same city violation, I actually think this is an opportunity for Urbana to change our numbers that are more skewed towards arrests,” he said.

This is compared to Urbana’s violations of which 41 percent lead to a ticket and 59 percent lead to arrest.

Despite these concerns, Ammons expects the marijuana ticket fee will be reduced in some capacity.

“I am confident that the majority of the Urbana City Council supports regulation and control of cannabis at the state and federal level, so they are open to reducing the fines and penalties associated with possession of marijuana,” he said. “I would love to pass my initial proposed change but I don’t have the votes for a $5 fine.”

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing has since proposed setting the fine at $100.

While Ammons said that the lower fee would logically bring savings to University students caught with less than 30 grams of the drug, he was unsure how it could potentially influence consumption on campus.

Student reaction to the proposed change has been mixed. While some believe lowering the fine will send a message of condoning marijuana use, others see it as beneficial.

Freshman Tom Kennedy thinks the the fine should be lowered from the current $300. However, Kennedy does not support a $5 fine.

It is too low when one considers the costs of enforcement he said. Rather, he supports implementing a market value on the amount of marijuana.

“So, say a flat $20 fine. I’d go with the maximum tax because this wastes police time and paperwork,” Kennedy said.

However, Kennedy doesn’t exactly see the point in having such a low fine at all, even with his proposed changes to Ammons’ idea.

“When the fine is this low, though, you might as well just legalize it. I understand the local government does not have that power, so maybe this is a good go in between.”