- Alison Green
- Marijuana possession laws in Illinois are confusing and unfair, says Roosevelt University’s Kathie Kane-Willis.
You don’t have to be stoned to end up dazed and confused about the pot laws in Illinois. A hodgepodge of rules and enforcement practices has created an inconsistent system of justice across the state, according to a study released Monday by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University.
As the Reader has reported a time or two, in Chicago, low-level marijuana possession has essentially been decriminalized in predominantly white and affluent parts of the city, but in African-American areas police routinely stop, search, and arrest citizens for carrying small amounts of weed—even though cops now have the option of issuing tickets instead.
And while the pace of busts has slowed, Chicago police are still making about 44 arrests a day for misdemeanor pot possession, making it the leading cause of arrest in the city.
The report found similar patterns in other municipalities around the state.
More than 100 cities and towns in Illinois have passed laws allowing police to issue citations for marijuana possession. But it’s still a criminal, arrestable offense under state law, and even where a local ticketing option exists, the use and impact of it varies widely.
For example, it’s better to be caught with a dime bag in Champaign, where 74 percent of busts led to a ticket, than next door in Urbana, where 59 percent ended with an arrest.
In southwest-suburban Countryside, 88 percent of people busted for carrying weed were issued citations, while 69 percent were in north-suburban Evanston.
But in Chicago only 7 percent of busts resulted in citations and 93 percent led to a full arrest. The city’s arrest rate for pot possession is more than three times higher than the national average, the study found.
“Geography, not justice, determines whether marijuana possession results in a fine or an arrest,” the report says.
Advocates hoped the ticketing measures would free police to pursue more serious crimes. But even after totals dropped in Chicago, city taxpayers still spent at least $25 million, and perhaps as much as $116 million, on misdemeanor pot arrests.
The report also found that ticketing ordinances did little to change who’s getting busted. In other words, Chicago isn’t the only place where a racial grass gap remains. In Evanston, it actually increased: African-Americans make up just 18 percent of the city’s population but accounted for 66 percent of possession arrests before its ordinance was implemented and 71 percent after.
Similarly, arrest rates have climbed in many black neighborhoods in Chicago since its ticketing law was put in place two years ago, including Fuller Park on the south side and East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Humboldt Park on the west side. Arrest rates in these communities are from three to six times higher than the citywide average.
Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy has said that the law hasn’t been fully implemented in some parts of the city, but stresses that fewer resources are going into low-level possession arrests.
But the report concludes that Illinois needs comprehensive, statewide reforms, including changes to state law that address the “patchwork” of local measures. And law enforcement officials actually need to implement the policies. “It’s hard to change policy, but it’s even harder to change a practice,” says Kathie Kane-Willis, one of the authors of the study.
The report also argues that policymakers should explore a tax-and-regulate system of legalizing marijuana sales—a subject already championed by some elected officials. “I don’t think it’s a fringe issue anymore,” Kane-Willis says. “And it’s the only way I can see to get rid of the racial disparity.”