Champaign council to study lowering fines for pot possession

Champaign council to study lowering fines for pot possession

CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign City Council is putting in motion a process that could lead to lower fines for adults in possession of cannabis, similar to an initiative launched in Urbana two years ago.

It made no sense to council member Clarissa Nickerson Fourman — who received support from all of her colleagues for a study session on the subject — why a person could be arrested on one side of Wright Street, and receive a fine of just $50 on the other, for the same crime.

"This is affecting low-income and minority people in my district," Fourman said. "If we want this twin cities thing to be easy and seamless, then you can't have this difference."

Initially, Fourman wanted the city to lower the fines for people 18 and older, but after some pushback from council members, she rewrote the language asking for a study on marijuana fines and how they compare to similarly sized cities elsewhere in the country.

The amended request was that the study session focus on adults over the age of 21 and take place sometime in the next three months.

When Urbana lowered its penalty for possessing less than 30 grams of cannabis — from $300 to $50 — misdemeanor charges for cannabis possession went down while the number of tickets issued for state civil and city-ordinance violations reached a 10-year high.

Now, felony charges for cannabis possession in Urbana are rare.

Champaign council member Tom Bruno said he's inclined to give serious consideration to the initiative, but added that his vote won't be influenced by what he learns about other cities.

"I'm not doing it because someone else has done it," Bruno said. "I'm watching the world around me, and I'm watching the evolution of Americans' attitudes toward the consumption of cannabis, and I think we should be cognizant of that in our community and adjust our laws accordingly."

Some of the pushback on immediate action to lower possession fines came from Mayor Deb Feinen, who requested the study focus on those 21 and older because she wants to keep cannabis and underage drinking violation fines high — they're both currently $350 — to discourage that activity among students.

"We need them to remain high enough so that there is a deterrent for students on campus," Feinen said, adding she also wants input from others on the issue. "I'm certainly willing to talk about it. And I want to hear from law enforcement on how that would change things."