House Bill could reduce penalties for possession of marijuana

State penalties for possessing marijuana could be significantly reduced, according to a bill that is currently on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives.

If passed, House Bill 5708, introduced by State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-14, would change the penalty for first offense possession of small amounts of cannabis under 30 grams to receiving a Uniform Cannabis Ticket for $100, which would be a petty offense. Under current state law, the penalty for a first offense is a Class A, B or C misdemeanor, depending on the amount of cannabis. 

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-8, cosponsor of the bill, said that under the current law, many people are followed by a record of cannabis possession for the rest of their lives. This bill, if passed, could help to reduce the number of people negatively involved in the criminal justice system.

Skip Frost, deputy chief of police for the University of Illinois Police Department, said he feels UIPD has already moved toward less severe penalties for marijuana possession.

“I think that we realize that someone who has a personal amount of cannabis, while it’s perfectly justified to arrest them for a Class C or Class B misdemeanor and incarcerate them, that’s really not the way we have done things for some time now,” he said. “A lot of these possession cases are already handled as city ordinance violations as opposed to criminal prosecutions.”

The cities of Urbana and Champaign operate under their own city ordinances. In Urbana, the minimum fine for possession of cannabis is $300, while the minimum fine for possession of cannabis in Champaign is $330.

Chris Lindsey, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that even if the bill is passed, the University’s disciplinary policies for possession of marijuana most likely would not change. Currently, the penalty for a first offense of possessing marijuana at the University is conduct probation. A second offense for possession of marijuana or the sale or delivery of drugs will result in dismissal from the University.

“It’s going to be under an enormous amount of pressure from the federal government to keep its policies,” Lindsey said, referring to the University.

Frost commented that he wasn’t sure whether decriminalization of marijuana would result in more student use, because use is hard to measure.

“We aren’t unrealistic. We realize that there are people out there who consume cannabis in personal amounts or quantities that we’ll never become aware of because we just won’t come across it.” Frost said, “I don’t know how you could quantify that more people are using it or less people are using it when you really don’t know now.”

Lindsey also said that he feels the bill has a chance of moving forward and being passed. He said a study done by the Marijuana Policy Project found that 63 percent of Illinois voters support the bill. He also said he thinks the cost-effective components of the bill will help to persuade municipalities to support it.

Ford commented that the passage of the bill could really benefit the state of Illinois by better using police and court resources.

“It really cleans up courts. It brings in revenue, and it forces people to pay for their actions,” he said.  

Lindsey agreed that this bill could have a positive fiscal effect on the state.

“It will save the state a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “If you look at the way that Illinois law works, you can go to jail (for possession of small amounts of marijuana), but you cannot be fined. And so, not only are we spending law enforcement resources, but we’re putting people to the courts.”

He commented that state funds are often used to provide attorneys to those who can’t afford one. He added that judges and prosecuting attorneys all have to devote their time to prosecuting people for a possession charge.

Lindsey also stated that marijuana is safer than alcohol, and most Americans feel it should be taxed and regulated.

“There is no sign whatsoever that (marijuana) has led to more crime, more abuse, all the things that we hear constantly from opponents,” he said.

Alex can be reached at [email protected]