Greater St. John's pastor thinks it's time to "decriminalize it" concerning marijuana enforcement laws.
During an April 15 interview on iheart radio, Rev. Ira Acree expressed support for the mandatory decriminalization bill currently before the General Assembly.
If approved, House Bill 5708 — co-sponsored by state representatives LaShawn Ford (8th) and Kelly Cassidy (14th) — would change the statewide handling of marijuana arrests. Fines versus jail time would be the penalty for offenders carrying small amounts of pot.
Acree believes a first-time possession offense should result in a fine, while subsequent offenses should be handled with a combination of community service and treatment.
"When a person has an alcohol problem we send him to Alcoholics Anonymous. Why shouldn't we send a person with a drug problem to treatment as well?" Acree said.
The bill would also make it easier for an offender to clean up his/her record of a minor possession arrest.
"Right now, the laws are set up to place a person caught in the possession of marijuana in jail and they are given a rap sheet. It can take months or even years to expunge the arrest from their record, and that impacts their economic prospects in the future. This policy has to change," Acree said.
HB 5708 would, among other provisions, make the possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana a "regulatory offense" only punishable by a fine of up to $100. Under current law, carrying small quantities of the drug — 2.5 grams, for example — is a criminal offense punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. The bill would also make it easier to expunge a possession arrest from a person's record.
A majority of Illinois voters also supports some form of de-criminalization.
Roughly 60 percent support making possession of an ounce of marijuana a non-criminal offense punishable by a fine, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released in April. Opposition to such a provision was only 27 percent.
Support has also grown nationwide.
Last month, for instance, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a bill decriminalizing marijuana possession in his state.
Despite growing support for such laws, Ford says Illinois' bill remains a tough sell among his fellow lawmakers.
"There are some in the House that are reluctant to get fully behind the bill at this point. Some are concerned about the backlash they may face from their constituents, or that support for the bill may be viewed an amnesty for drug offenders," Ford says — this issue, he stressed, needs addressing given how strongly communities are impacted by it.
Ford noted alarming statistics showing that black men are six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white males.
The bill, Acree added, would end what he calls "prohibitionist policies" against marijuana possession that has historically targeted primarily poor people and communities.
"I'm not taking a moral stance on the subject of marijuana use. I am only speaking for the penalty for people in communities of color, which I believe is too high," Acree said. "There is no reason to have so many black men in prison for what are basically non-violent offenses."