Marijuana decriminalization only one modest step in ending war on drugs

Demonstrators organized by Black Youth Project 100 march to the Chicago Police Department headquarters to protest racially unjust marijuana arrests on Aug. 26, 2014.

Photo by Emily Jan

Demonstrators organized by Black Youth Project 100 march to the Chicago Police Department headquarters to protest racially unjust marijuana arrests on Aug. 26, 2014.

Gov. Bruce Rauner deserves some praise for signing a bill decriminalizing possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana last week.  Last year, he vetoed a bill decriminalizing possession of less than 15 grams, saying that was too much.

But with the state’s budget imploding and violence surging in some communities in Chicago, we need a much tougher, more honest look at the moral and fiscal failures of the war on drugs.

A new platform from the Movement for Black Lives sets an ambitious and appropriate goal:

“The retroactive decriminalization, immediate release and record expungement of all drug related offenses and prostitution, and reparations for the devastating impact of the ‘war on drugs’ and criminalization of prostitution, including a reinvestment of the resulting savings and revenue into restorative services, mental health services, job programs and other programs supporting those impacted by the sex and drug trade.”

Currently, Illinois spends over $330 million a year to incarcerate drug offenders. (Local governments bear the burden of law enforcement and court costs.) That’s according to the state’s own Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, which scored a bill that would save over $100 million a year by reducing felony class levels for possession and manufacture of illegal drugs.

The new law signed by Rauner won’t reduce those costs significantly since it only deals with misdemeanor offenders, who are housed in county jails.

But can we really afford hundreds of millions of dollars in prison costs – and hundreds of millions more for police and courts – for an approach that isn’t making our communities safer?

While drug trafficking doesn’t seem to be a major driver of the current upsurge of shootings in Chicago, the mass incarceration resulting from the war on drugs has decimated communities of color and left a landscape of despair and desperation.  The “new Jim Crow” denies drug offenders legal employment and keeps people convicted of minor offenses “trapped in permanent second-class status and struggling for survival,” author Michelle Alexander writes in her book of the same name.

As the National Institutes of Health has reported, in communities on the South and West sides of Chicago that are heavily impacted by the “incarceration regime” – and by dramatic racial disparities in drug law enforcement – “the combination of poverty, unemployment, family displacement and racial isolation is bound up with high levels of incarceration.”  It also seems to be bound up with high levels of street violence.

Creating an economy which offers a meaningful future for all our young people will take far-reaching change, but ending the war on drugs would be a big step in that direction.

Despite signs that Rauner understands at least some of this, he’s been stubbornly slow to act.  Last year, he established a commission on criminal justice and sentencing reform with the goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent over the next decade.

The commission issued its first report in December, and some of its preliminary recommendations have inspired legislative action, including a bill opening some occupational licensing to ex-offenders that is awaiting the governor’s signature.

But when the General Assembly passed a marijuana decriminalization bill last year, Rauner insisted they scale it back so it would impact fewer people.  He’s also dragged his feet on the state’s medical marijuana program; though he finally extended it through 2020, he’s rejected an advisory board’s recommendations to make several conditions eligible.  Patients have recently won lawsuits challenging Rauner’s exclusion of PTSD and migraine headaches from the list.

Last year, Rauner also vetoed Medicaid funding for treatment for heroin addiction, arguing the state couldn’t afford it.  The argument was absurd, since his action would result in higher costs for emergency rooms and jails, and the General Assembly overrode the veto.

“If he were as pro-business as he says he is and looking to create jobs and bring in revenue for the state,” Rauner would support legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana, said Dan Linn of Illinois NORML.  “I don’t know any other industry that is knocking on the doors of this state to the same extent.” ­

Not to mention that the industry is prepared to invest thousands of dollars to create thousands of jobs and pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.

NORML has backed legislation that would do just that and would reduce financial and legal barriers to entry so people now selling marijuana underground “could become legitimate business people,” Linn said.

That’s important, he added: “If we don’t replace the economic opportunity – one of the only opportunities that exist in some communities – these folks are going to have a hard time providing for themselves and their families.”

The broader call to end the war on drugs by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of 50 grassroots black organizations, is part of a comprehensive platform that includes criminal justice reform and reparations.  But it doesn’t end there, demanding universal health care, free education, progressive taxation, jobs programs, union rights and campaign finance reform.

These are all necessary if we are to reclaim our government and rebuild our society.  But we have to start somewhere. With conservatives now joining liberals in questioning high rates of incarceration, and some law enforcement leaders now questioning drug prohibition, we should expect much bolder action from our governor and legislators to reduce the harm and waste of the war on drugs.

  • Bruce Eli Mosbacher

    We punish bringing more than 5,000 grams (10/11 lbs) into Illinois twice as severely as we punish rape or armed robbery or attempt murder. Yes 12-60 years in the penitentiary…no probation. let’s start there.