SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Bruce Rauner is working with the Illinois State Police on how to handle a proposal to make marijuana possession in small amounts punishable only with fines under a bill he appears poised to sign.
The legislation, which also sets a standard for what’s considered too high to drive, includes stronger provisions the Republican governor suggested to lawmakers last year as a condition for signing off on removing jail time for having 10 grams or less of pot. A chief sponsor of this year’s bill, Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, said the Rauner administration has assured her he will sign the bill but is waiting until next month to give law enforcement time to prepare for its implementation.
The bill comes as many states reconsider whether jail is the most appropriate punishment for petty pot offenses. If signed, Illinois would be the 17th state – and third largest – to treat possession of marijuana in small amounts as a civil offense rather than a criminal one, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which tracks legislation on the topic nationally. New York and California are among the states that have made the change.
Rauner has indicated support for reducing penalties for marijuana offenses, but his spokeswoman said in a statement he’s still reviewing the bill.
Lawmakers sent Rauner the bill June 16 and he has 60 days from that date to take action.
The proposal passed with bipartisan support, but some in law enforcement have reservations. Greg Sullivan, the executive director of the Illinois Sheriff’s Association, said the bill doesn’t differentiate between minors and adults who are caught with small amounts of pot, and that the new approach may not bring proper attention to problem use by minors.
Opponents are also concerned that reducing penalties for marijuana possession sends a message that it isn’t harmful. But about 100 Illinois communities, including Chicago, already give police discretion to issue citations instead of making arrests for having small amounts of the drug. Lawmakers said they want to promote consistency in how minor marijuana offenses are handled.
The legislation would also require municipalities to purge citation records for possession every six months, unless local governments decide against it. Supporters of the bill argue people shouldn’t be saddled with lifelong criminal records for minor offenses that make it difficult to find employment or housing.
When Rauner vetoed last year’s legislation, he said in a letter to lawmakers that the existing penalties for petty marijuana offenses are “too severe” and that “criminal prosecution of cannabis possession is also a drain on public resources.” He wrote that he supports “the fundamental purposes” of the initiative.
He said he would sign the proposal if sponsors made changes he wanted. In the bill he vetoed, lawmakers wanted possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana to be a civil offense punishable with a fine between $55 and $125. Rauner wanted the threshold to be lower – 10 grams or less – and the fines higher – between $100 and $200.
Rauner recommended the DUI standard for marijuana should be 5 nanograms of THC, marijuana’s intoxicating chemical, in a driver’s blood within two hours of consumption. Lawmakers initially proposed that the standard be 15 nanograms.
Currently, any trace of marijuana is enough to be considered impaired, but pot advocates have long criticized zero-tolerance states’ approach because marijuana can stay in a person’s system for several weeks.
The bill now on Rauner’s desk has included all of his suggestions.