There's a fine line on pot possession in C-U — and it runs down Wright Street

There's a fine line on pot possession in C-U — and it runs down Wright Street

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Get caught in Urbana with a small amount of marijuana (and no state-issued medical-cannabis card) and it will run you $50. But violate the same ordinance on the Champaign side of Wright Street, and it will set you back $350 — minimum.

Hmmm.

"I think it's super hypocritical if we do not match Urbana," said Champaign City Council member Clarissa Nickerson Fourman, whose call for reducing the minimum penalty led to tonight's study session, the encore to the regular 7 p.m. council meeting at the City Building.

The public will have the chance to weigh in on the topic tonight, one week after pro-marijuana-legalization candidate J.B. Pritzker was elected governor.

Here are a few things you ought to know about the issue:

1.

Any reduction in fines in Champaign would apply only to those over 21; when Urbana voted to scale back its penalties in 2016 — from $300 to $50 — it didn't include any age-specific qualifiers.

Another difference between the two cities: Champaign, like the state of Illinois, defines "small amount" as less than 10 grams. Urbana's reworked ordinance applies to anything less than 30 grams.

2.

In Champaign, possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana has been a civil matter, not a criminal one, since 1995. It's one of dozens of ordinance violations — punishable by a fine, not jail — in the city code.

3.

Champaign has three levels of minimum fines for such violations — $205 (for letting your dog "deposit fecal matter on any public right-of-way or property," among other less-serious transgressions); $255 (prostitution); and $350 (all five of the city's most common violations in 2017 — minor in possession of alcohol, 414; unlawful use of ID, 368; cannabis possession, 144; theft, 113; and possession of drug paraphernalia, 29).

4.

While a report by city staff outlines certain advantages to the change — for one, less time in court for all involved — there would be a certain financial hit to adjust to. About $32,760 of the $50,400 Champaign charged for cannabis violations in 2017 was to those over the age of 21.

5.

Most everyone has an opinion. On the eve of today's study session, we reached out to council members for their thoughts. Here's what they had to say:

— Tom Bruno: "The changing nature of public attitudes toward cannabis use is very apparent. I would be comfortable significantly reducing our minimum city-ordinance fine for possession of small amounts of cannabis. A $50 minimum seems like an appropriate amount while we wait to see if Illinois law follows national trends and changes to legalize the recreational use of cannabis."

— Fourman: "I am 100 percent for lowering the cannabis fine. I would prefer that we do it for all adults over the age of 18. I understand that the mayor has concerns about U of I students having cannabis fines that are lower than alcohol tickets, but I don't feel that's necessary. I would prefer it match Urbana, but if it was up to me, I would make it $5."

— Mayor Deb Feinen: "I am interested in hearing the presentation and discussion. ... I signed the study-session request so that we would have an opportunity to gather additional information and so that the community could provide input during the meeting about the impact the fine is or is not having on people. I am approaching the meeting with an open mind with no set amount that I think is the appropriate fine."

— Greg Stock: "It's definitely time to have the discussion about lowering fines, and I'm in favor. It may be a non-issue anyway, because I think legalization is rapidly on its way at the state level. I hope that if the states does legalize it, that they dedicate the tax revenues to existing obligations such as pension debt and not simply see it as another revenue source to spend away."

— Alicia Beck: "I am in favor of lowering the minimum fine for cannabis possession. But I feel that the study session doesn't quite go far enough. Given that recreational use of marijuana is not legal for anyone, regardless of age, the fine reduction should apply to everyone. This is also in keeping with the current ordinance in our sister city, Urbana. Having the same ordinance for cannabis as Urbana makes for a clean and easily understood law for our citizens."

— Vanna Pianfetti: "I am in support of lowering minimum fine, but I am uncertain as to what the fine should be given that currently, cannabis is still considered an illegal substance. I still need to do some thinking as to what may be the appropriate path forward for this."

— Will Kyles: "I would be for reducing the minimum fee to match Urbana's minimum fee for those over the age of 21. At a time where state legislation could be decriminalizing the use of marijuana completely, I don't see how we can justify our current fee structure."

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