By Cassandra Dowell
A proposed bill currently in the Illinois Senate would amend the state’s Cannabis Control Act, reducing penalties for small amounts of cannabis. And the act just might be the change Illinois needs to address racial disparities in arrests and incarceration.
In Illinois, black people make up 15 percent of the population, but account for approximately 58 percent of the state’s marijuana possession arrests, according to a June 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The report also noted that black people are over 7.5 times more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana possession.
House Bill 218 provides that cannabis possession of 15 grams or less is a civil law violation punishable by a minimum fine of $55 and a maximum fine of $125, rather than a Class C misdemeanor for 2.5 grams or less, or a Class B misdemeanor for more than 2.5 grams to 10 grams. The devastating impact of harsh sentencing for small amounts of cannabis on communities of color, especially in poorer neighborhoods, is not new news.
“People of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites,” notes the Drug Policy Alliance, which likens the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young black men, to the Jim Crow laws that were in this country until the mid-1960s.
“Illinois needs to start investing in the disadvantaged communities of color that are being disproportionately and systematically depopulated by our zero-tolerance drug policy,” said Sen. Jacqueline Y. Collins, D-Chicago 16th. Collins is a chief co-sponsor of the proposed legislation. Collins told MJINews, “This legislation will help our state move from paying to warehouse people with drug addictions, to helping them obtain treatment and make positive contributions to their families and neighborhoods.”
Possession in the state is currently treated as a misdemeanor unless a local municipality has an ordinance that allows police to issue a ticket instead, opening the door wide open to wildly different approaches to handling possession, which hurts communities of color the most, said Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of NORML, an advocacy group working to reform marijuana laws. Linn also serves as the director of government and public relations for the Illinois Cannabis Industry Association.
In The Windy City, for example, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced on April 20, 2015, that her office would no longer prosecute those nabbed for the first or second time with up to 30 grams of marijuana. But statistics show the announcement has done little to curb the racial disparities seen in non-violent drug arrests and incarceration, likely because police can still choose to arrest offenders under state law, even though they will not be prosecuted by the county.
At the time of Alvarez’s announcement, police made at least 212 arrests for misdemeanor possession that week, a rate of 30 per day; more than 90 percent were in predominantly black neighborhoods, according to the Chicago Reader.
“The bill provides clear guidance as to what law enforcement should do when they find people in possession of small amounts of cannabis,” Linn told MJINews, adding that the bill would help to address the “patchwork” of regulations across the state concerning cannabis.
More than 75 cities and towns across Illinois have already enacted local ordinances removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, so HB 218 would create a uniform system, according to the ACLU.
There is no doubt that the bill would help reduce the number of people arrested and prosecuted for possessing small amounts of cannabis, but Illinois will still face challenges.
“When low-level possession is decriminalized, police will probably issue more tickets—but even then African-Americans will bear the brunt of enforcement,” stated the Chicago Reader. “That’s what’s happened in Chicago. As marijuana arrests fell, the number of cannabis citations shot up from 1,074 in 2013 to 4,032 in 2014, police data show. And the vast majority—78%—were issued to African-Americans. Just 16% went to Hispanics and 5% to whites.”
While the bill is an important step in addressing racial inequality, it is just the first of many steps that need to be taken to address racial bias in the state’s justice system.