By Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Project Director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy
The following letter is being distributed to all Illinois State Senators on Tuesday, May 19 in anticipation of a vote on HB 218. Please call and urge their support.
The Illinois State Senate will most likely vote this week on a bill to substitute civil sanctions – a fine, much like a traffic ticket – rather than criminal penalties for possession of very low levels of cannabis. Why should this bill (HB 218) pass? Because it reflects the truth that arrests and jail are the wrong way to respond to those who use drugs. Punishment is not the answer.
For over 40 years, we have fought a War on Drugs in this nation based on the false premise that turning people into criminals – marginalizing them – will somehow help them. This is a very hard mindset to break. Police, especially local sheriffs, have been trained to see every aspect of drugs as dangerous. Passing medical marijuana in Illinois, which the public now supports, was very hard for this reason.
Two years ago one of Chicago’s leading public servants dating back to the Ogilvie years was on a television news panel discussing whether Chicago should decriminalize marijuana. Losing the argument, he attempted a strategic retreat: why not arrest those possessing small amounts, give them a six-month education program, and expunge their record if they pass the program? I emailed him with the simple question: “Why the arrest?” There is no good answer.
I approach this matter from my faith tradition, which does not bring forward criminal sanctions – arrests and often jail – as the way to change behavior. It does speak often about healing, mercy, and forgiveness. It brings forward a God of love and compassion, one who seeks to persuade and teach, not to condemn. Punishment is reserved for those who harm others; and even then, primarily to deter, not to punish.
Current marijuana possession laws do just the opposite. They mark people, usually those under the age of 25, for life. Nearly 50,000 individuals in Illinois are arrested for marijuana possession each year. They find it difficult to find a job. The can lose federal education grants. Housing is at risk; the Chicago Housing Authority denies housing for a minimum of five years after an arrest, not even a conviction, for low level possession. Those convicted of a drug possession felony are denied food stamps and public assistance for life. So much for forgiveness.
Marijuana arrests fall disproportionately on African-Americans and Hispanics, usually in very poor neighborhoods. Indeed, suburban kids, with the help of parents, school officials, and sometimes the police, find ways to avoid being charged, and their cases are often thrown out if they even go to court. With either group, it is not easy, especially if you cannot afford a lawyer or give up several days from a job, to expunge your record.
HB 218 would eliminate these measures by substituting a fine of no more than $125 or less for possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana. It would use a portion of the fees collected to fund education and treatment. It would free up law enforcement to concentrate on higher priorities, including violence in our streets. That’s one of the main reasons that the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association and the Illinois Bar Association support the bill.
Over 100 cities and towns across Illinois have already anticipated its passage. Over the past 20 years they have quietly, without fanfare, turned to civil, not criminal sanctions. It is time for the State of Illinois to follow their lead.
Read our Take Action pages to learn more about Decriminalization and Collateral Consequences.