The harsh penalties for possession of marijuana in Illinois have recently come under fire for a number of reasons. Many believe that charging individuals for misdemeanor marijuana possession, which is the leading arrest category in Chicago, is a waste of police time and tax dollars. Across the country, attitudes towards marijuana are shifting in favor of decriminalization or, in the cases of Colorado and Washington, legalization. Amidst these changing attitudes and the controversy over disproportionate drug crime sentencing, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is voicing his support for the decriminalization of marijuana in Illinois.
Mayor Emanuel, who rose to political prominence as the White House chief of staff under President Obama, testified before the Illinois General Assembly about potentially removing the state’s strict pot ban. He told the Chicago Tribune that he believes it’s time “to free up our criminal justice system to address or real public safety challenges” and that decriminalizing marijuana would not only “save time and money” but would also “change people’s lives.” Emanuel’s statement seems to allude to the significant percentage of criminal offenders who are currently serving lengthy sentences in overcrowded prisons for non-violent drug crimes. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, almost half of all US prisoners are serving a sentence for drug offenses.
Emanuel also spoke about the impact a criminal conviction for possession of marijuana can have on the rest of a person’s life. Even though the crime is a misdemeanor, having a criminal record at all can significantly impact a person’s ability to go to college, get a good job, or even find a place to live. There is significant evidence that there is a huge racial disparity in arrests and convictions for drug crimes, and many of the people who find themselves facing these convictions already face major institutional barriers in creating a better life.
Where Illinois and the Rest of the Country Currently Stands on Marijuana
Emanuel’s high-profile push for the decriminalization of marijuana may signal a change in the wind for the state. Illinois has already made some small changes and last year became the twentieth state to legalize medicinal marijuana. However, even regulations on medicinal marijuana remain tight, and Governor Pat Quinn said that he was willing to sign the bill legalizing medical marijuana because it was “so tightly and properly drafted.” 23 states (including Illinois) and the District of Columbia have now made medical marijuana legal.
If Illinois does decriminalize marijuana, it will join DC and 17 states that have already done so. As mentioned above, Colorado and Washington are the only states that have actually legalized recreational marijuana, but Oregon, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and DC are beginning to look as though they will all pass legalization initiatives in the next several years.
Illinois residents should keep in mind that while attitudes are shifting in our state and nationwide, and while there will hopefully come a time when our states does decriminalize cannabis, Illinois still has some of the toughest marijuana possession restrictions and penalties in the country. If you’re charged with a misdemeanor for the possession of a small amount of marijuana, make sure that you contact a drug crimes attorney as soon as possible and fight to have the charge dropped. You don’t want a conviction negatively affecting the rest of your life.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and violent crimes to theft-related crimes and domestic violence.