A step toward ending the pot war

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

Lives wasted. Billions spent. The decriminalization of marijuana isn’t merely right-minded social policy. It’s the fiscally conservative thing to do.

Legislation to make possession of up to 15 grams on par with a traffic ticket breezed through the Illinois Senate Criminal Law Committee earlier this month, on its way to the floor. Urban Democrats propelled it through the House this past week. But Republicans, including Gov. Bruce Rauner, and rural Democrats, are doing all they can to stall the march toward reasonable permissiveness. 

It’s no secret that the state budget is a train wreck, caused by decades of gimmicks and mismanagement. Proponents of decriminalization say even the paired-down version of HB218 passed in the House would save Illinois $30 million. It would free more than 100 prisoners, now costing taxpayers more than $38,000 apiece. And, perhaps most important, it would expunge the records of the thousands of residents who have been victims of outdated, often racist drug policy.

These facts alone leave us perplexed by the opposition from the right flank and conservative Democrats in the House. Reps. Brandon Phelps, John Bradley and Jerry Costello, all Southern Illinois Democrats, dissented. They joined Republican Terri Bryant in opposition.

It’s a fact that marijuana bans were first created to hammer minorities. It’s a fact that the war on non-violent drug offenses disproportionately clogs the state’s court system with inner-city black men, who are nearly eight times more likely to get busted for misdemeanor possessing pot, according to a recent Rockefeller University study. And, with the intent-to-deal provision, it’s a fact that too many felons have been created for nothing more than a bag of weed.

Laws should protect the people. Never should they be drafted to feed the prison economy beast on which too many communities have come to depend.

Too many are defending Illinois’s failed drug policy, brashly supporting the broken status quo. Decriminalization is the next step toward full-on legalization, they say. There shouldn’t be any expansion to the recently approved medical marijuana law, they contend. And Illinois’s Republican governor is already refusing to extend the medicinal program pending review, while red tape and bureaucracy are hamstringing the test run.

Opponents are correct on one count. Decriminalization is a step toward a fully legalized, well-regulated marijuana system in the state. Their mistake comes by clinging to the hype of the aging anti-pot propaganda machine. A truly small government doesn’t needlessly impinge on people’s lives, which is exactly what fear-based pot laws now do.

Opponents are trying to stem a tide that has already consumed them. Rauner should immediately sign HB218 if it clears the Senate.

Decriminalization is indeed a step toward legalization. And, in light of the billions spent and millions of lives ruined by the war on pot, it’s a path worth following.

Editor’s note: This piece was published on May 8 in The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan and made available through an AP exchange.