Illinois may decriminalize small amounts of marijuana

Bills offer ticket instead of arrest for possession

click to enlarge Rep. Michael Zalewski sponsors one of three bills that would lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. - PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
Rep. Michael Zalewski sponsors one of three bills that would lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Rep. Michael Zalewski sponsors one of three bills that would lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Illinois could follow the example of several other states in decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, thanks to legislation under consideration in the Illinois General Assembly.

The three bills prescribe tickets – effectively akin to speeding tickets – instead of arrest for possessing small amounts of pot. Proponents say the bills are meant to save the state money and avoid giving people criminal records for minor offenses.

The proposals come at a time when marijuana is becoming less threatening in the eyes of the public. Two states have legalized small amounts of the drug, and several other states have switched from arresting people for pot possession to simply writing tickets and collecting fines. Illinois is already preparing to launch a medical marijuana program that would allow those who suffer from certain diseases to use the drug without penalty.

The three bills stop short of full legalization of marijuana, as has been done in Colorado and Washington. In those states, possession of small amounts of marijuana does not result in a ticket or fine. Under Illinois’ proposals, small amounts of marijuana would still be seen as contraband, but would not be treated the same as more dangerous drugs.

Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, sponsors House Bill 5708, which would make possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana a “regulatory offense” punishable by a fine of up to $100. Current law makes possession of as little as 2.5 grams of marijuana a class C misdemeanor, which is a criminal offense punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. Cassidy’s bill also allows such offenses to be expunged from a person’s record.

Cassidy says she’s pushing for decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana for several reasons, but the prime reason is the cost of enforcing anti-marijuana laws.

“Having worked in the criminal justice system, I’m keenly aware of the shrinking resources that we see in prosecution, incarceration, treatment and all of those other places,” said Cassidy, who formerly worked for the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney. “We’re cutting the pie into smaller and smaller slices.”

Additionally, the social cost of handing out criminal records for nonviolent drug offenses quickly adds up, Cassidy says. Having a criminal record can prevent access to student loans, housing, employment and other opportunities.

“In many cases, these are very small amounts,” she said. “We’re talking about people ending up incapable of fully participating in society. There are economic impacts to that.”

A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, is similar to Cassidy’s bill, but it also lowers the penalties for possessing marijuana plants. Currently, possessing up to four marijuana plants is a class A misdemeanor, but Mitchell’s bill, House Bill 4299, would make it a petty offense with a fine of up to $100. Possessing between five and 20 plants would become a class A misdemeanor under Mitchell’s bill, instead of the current class 4 felony.

Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Chicago, sponsors a third bill, decreasing the penalties for marijuana possessions. Although House Bill 4091 would result in a ticket for marijuana possession, the bill would still consider possession of marijuana a criminal offense instead of a petty offense. Additionally, possessing a large amount of marijuana near a school would become a class X felony under Zalewski’s bill, punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a fine of $200,000.

Each bill was approved by a legislative committee last week and awaits a vote by the Illinois House. It’s likely the sponsors will confer with one another to determine which bill has the most support before calling any of the bills for a vote. Cassidy’s bill has support from 155 groups and individuals, but Zalewski’s bill is the only one of the three to gain support from the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney, which wields considerable influence on criminal law legislation in the Statehouse.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at

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