Rep. Welter explains ‘present’ vote on bill to lessen penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs

Lawmaker says his vote was intended to spark conversation on rehabilitation

Hopefully with the support of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle so that together we can get beyond the same old battle lines of Democrats on one side fighting to decriminalize hard drugs; and Republicans on the other side stubbornly unwilling to reform a broken system that fails to give individuals battling drug addiction the compassion, support and treatment services they need.

—  State Rep. David Welter (R-Morris)

A bill to lessen penalties for possessing and selling small amounts of drugs, including heroin and cocaine, passed Wednesday out of the state House of Representatives.

It passed by a 61-49 vote. State Rep. David Welter (R-Morris), whose district includes eastern La Salle County, voted present.

He took some criticism for the vote on social media for not weighing in with a yes or no vote on what was a contentious debate on the House floor, but he responded to those critics Thursday.

“I could have simply voted ‘no’ on House Bill 3447. Doing so would not have prevented the bill from passing, nor would it have affirmed my values,” Welter said in a Facebook post. “I voted present knowing it would attract criticism, because I believe it was the best way to start a conversation on the tragically unaddressed issues concerning Illinois’ policies on drug addiction that we need to tackle head-on.”

Welter said he believes in “giving folks a hand up,” through second chances and redemption, a concept he said is a Republican value.

“This includes those struggling with and recovering from drug addiction,” Welter said. “The reality is, individuals with a felony conviction for drug possession in small amounts (3 grams or less) are haunted by their record for their entire life, no matter how long ago it was.”

Welter said the scar on a person’s record for drug possession may be a barrier to them gaining employment, which is essential to supporting themselves and their family. It also is a barrier to pursuing education, he said.

“If we want people recovering from drug addiction to become healthy, self-sufficient, contributing members of society, we as a state and within our criminal justice system need to give them a hand up,” Welter said. “With few exceptions, our criminal justice system today is focused more on incarceration than on treatment and rehabilitation. This is a tragedy and keeps thousands of people trapped in a cycle of addiction and arrests that robs them of dignity and hope.”

Welter said the stigma needs to be reduced for men and women recovering from drug addiction to help them improve.

Welter said he opposes House Bill 3447, because he believes heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, morphine, ecstasy, oxycodone, LSD, PCP, and methamphetamine are dangerous and lethal drugs; and that while reducing the criminal penalty for possession from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor might keep more people out of prison, that doesn’t do anything to help them get the help they need to overcome addiction and rebuild their lives.

Welter said La Salle, Grundy, Kendall and Will counties have drug court diversion programs that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation over incarceration.

“This is the model we need throughout the entire state of Illinois,” Welter said. “I am committed to working on legislation to bring this about, hopefully with the support of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle so that together we can get beyond the same old battle lines of Democrats on one side fighting to decriminalize hard drugs; and Republicans on the other side stubbornly unwilling to reform a broken system that fails to give individuals battling drug addiction the compassion, support and treatment services they need.”

— Capitol News Illinois reporter Sarah Mansur contributed to this report.

Derek Barichello

Derek is a Streator High and University of Illinois graduate. He worked at the Albany-Herald in Albany, Ga., and for Sauk Valley Media in Sterling, before returning to his hometown paper. He's now news editor for both the NewsTribune and The Times.