State marijuana proposal would affect Urbana's rules

URBANA — More than five years have passed since the city of Urbana got more lenient on possession of marijuana, and now a bill is circulating the state Legislature that would make penalties less severe for getting caught with smaller amounts of the drug.

Whatever effect the 2008 city ordinance may have had appears to be minimal, although Police Chief Patrick Connolly said it has freed up officers' time and kept them on the street to deal with more serious crimes.

The city had to introduce a new ordinance prohibiting possession of marijuana to be more lenient on it. Before the city had its own rules to deal with the crime, it relied on the state's criminal code to penalize people who were caught with any amount of marijuana.

That meant those people often were taken to jail, charged with a misdemeanor and assigned a court date. If convicted, it stayed on their criminal records.

Since the city council added an ordinance which didn't exist prior to 2008, dealing with people who are caught with smaller amounts of marijuana is as simple as writing a $300 ticket, the same as when someone under 21 is caught drinking alcohol.

Last year, 68 people were written a city ticket for possession of cannabis, according to Urbana Police Department data, compared to 135 who were written up under state law in marijuana-related crimes.

Black people were represented in higher numbers: Of the 203 total arrests, 123 were African-American. Another 70 were white, eight were Hispanic and two were Asian.

Many of the 135 arrested under state law instead of city ordinance were for much higher amounts of the drug or were associated with more serious crimes, some rising to felony levels.

Of the 135, 106 were actually taken to jail. In 82 instances, other crimes were involved in the incident, like traffic violations and driving under the influence or other drugs.

But for the 68 less serious violations, that's 68 instances where police officers didn't have to spend a couple hours processing a new inmate through the county jail, "which was already bursting at the seams," Connolly said.

But doing that is not so cut-and-dried. Connolly warns that each case is different — the situation varies, for example, by how much marijuana someone is holding or whether the person has a criminal history.

"There are so many variables involved that it would be impossible for me to dictate by policy how the officer should handle the situation," Connolly said.

The ordinance grants police officers a lot of leeway.

"It's based on the totality of the circumstances," Connolly said. "I don't tell the officer how to do his job; the officer has to research on a case-by-case basis."

That means it's up to the officer whether someone gets only a fine or is charged with a crime.

That would change significantly if state legislators pass House Bill 5708, which is sponsored by two Chicago Democrats and would make the penalties for possessing up to 30 grams of marijuana similar to a minor traffic ticket with a fine of $100.

The bill also proposes reducing the penalty for having between 30 grams and 500 grams from a felony to a misdemeanor. Repeat offenders would still be charged with a felony.

The key difference is that a marijuana ticket would be removed from a person's record after the fine is paid. Criminal convictions stay with that person.

"We certainly don't want to overcrowd our jail," said Urbana Alderwoman Carol Ammons, D-Ward 3. "We also want to look at the best use of our resources, our police resources."

Ammons, who is running to replace retiring state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson in November, said she supports the city's ordinance and would support changing the state's rules on possession of marijuana. She said it provides relief for the government agencies involved in dealing with low-level offenders.

"It relieves the burden on our police department, on our county jail," Ammons said. "It also relieves the burden on the citizen because they wouldn't have that record going forward."

Connolly pointed out that 30 grams is still a lot of marijuana. That is where the state currently draws the line between misdemeanor and felony and where the proposed bill would draw the line between a ticket and a criminal offense.

The drug has grown more potent through the years, Connolly said, and it can sell for double or triple what it used to.

"That is a substantial amount of cannabis, especially given the fact that the quality of marijuana is so much higher these days," Connolly said.

Illinois this year joined an increasing list of states — now numbering 21 plus the District of Columbia — that allow marijuana for medical use.

Ammons said she has not seen any evidence to support concerns that leniency toward low-level offenders leads to more consumption or more public acceptance.

Regardless of individual state laws, possession of marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The White House Office of National Drug Policy says the drug poses significant risk to public health, including addiction, respiratory illnesses and cognitive impairment.

The office says legality increases the availability and acceptability of drugs — like with alcohol and tobacco. Increased consumption likely would put more strain on public health systems.

Connolly said he's generally opposed to the idea of legalizing any drug — he agreed that legalization usually leads to greater public acceptance.

"I think the message being sent is, 'It's not as bad as you think it is,'" Connolly said.

And whether Urbana's leniency on possession of smaller amounts of marijuana is at all attributable is unknown, but Connolly said anecdotally that police are seeing more drugs on the streets, particularly among younger people.

"We are seeing an increase in pharmaceutical drugs," he said. "We are seeing an increase in a variety of different drugs because they are more readily available."

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