State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) has introduced a bill in the General Assembly to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Last week Ford, who represents both Oak Park and Austin, hosted a forum for more than 50 people about the bill at Oak Park’s Village Hall.

Ford’s bill, which is currently languishing in the Rules committee of the Illinois House of Representatives, would make the possession of one ounce of marijuana or less a petty offense like a traffic ticket instead of a violation of criminal law. The only punishment would be a fine.

The goal of the bill is to stop making criminals of pot smokers, save taxpayers money by not incarcerating pot smokers and free up police to do more important work, Ford said.

Ford also said he hoped a stiff fine would persuade marijuana smokers to change their habits and motivate them to get treatment.

“The goal is to make sure we are proactive and help make sure that individuals who violate the law become more responsible and taxpayers less responsible for their actions,” Ford said.

Decriminalizing marijuana possession would also stop young offenders from getting a criminal record that can have devastating long term effects on their job prospects.

“This will send people immediately to treatment,” Ford said. “Hopefully it will keep them from moving into criminal activity.” However the bill does not mandate treatment and some on the panel and in the audience said there is no treatment for recreational marijuana use.

Ford’s bill currently calls for a $500 fine for the first offense, $750 for the second offense and $1,000 for the third and subsequent offenses. After the forum Ford said he plans to amend his bill to lower the fines based on feedback he received at the forum.  

“I want to change that,” Ford said.

The bill calls for 50 percent of all fines to be shared with the local law enforcement agencies that seize the pot.

The forum consisted of a panel of Ford and Walter Boyd, director of criminal justice initiatives for Protestants for the Common Good; UIC professor James Swartz; Juliana Stratton, executive director of the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council; Pat Coughlin, deputy chief of the Narcotics Bureau for the Cook County State’s Attorney; Bruce Banks, lieutenant colonel in the Illinois State Police and Laura Brookes, policy director for TASC, a drug treatment advocacy group.

Boyd, a resident of Austin, supported Ford’s bill but said legalization of marijuana would be even better because it would take out the illicit profits from the drug trade and reduce crime.

“If we expect less drug markets on the street or illicit trade it’s not going to do that,” Boyd said of Ford’s bill. “If we want to do that we’ve got to go further. The sale and the trafficking of drugs are creating dangerous communities. I don’t think decriminalization will end this.”

Boyd said the drug trade should be taxed and regulated.

“Right now nobody’s checking ID’s on the street when they’re buying marijuana,” said Boyd who argued that the current law is ineffective.

Swartz also seemed to support the bill. He noted that 40 percent of Americans older than the age of 12 have used marijuana at least once so the current criminal prohibition doesn’t seem to be very effective.

“I don’t see a big deterrent effect in the criminal law,” Swartz said. “(Decriminalization) frees up resources to go after harder drugs and minimizes the harms with them which I think are more severe.”

Boyd, Stratton and many in the audience said that current drug laws too often give young black men criminal records.

Stratton noted it costs $142 a day to hold a prisoner in Cook County Jail and many in the jail are young black men who are awaiting trial for minor drug offenses.

“There is an issue of race that has to come into question,” Stratton said. “Certain communities may be more targeted. Black and brown men in the County Jail.”

Many in the audience agreed.

“This war on drugs is really a war on us,” said one young black man in the audience.

Not surprisingly Banks and Couglin appeared to oppose decriminalization.

“I don’t think the solution is to decriminalize it,” Banks said. “Education is the solution.”

The audience of about 50 people appeared to be overwhelmingly in favor of decriminalization and there were some aggressive and well prepared advocates of legalization of marijuana present.

They said marijuana use is not addicting, not connected with violence, and is not a drug that necessarily leads to the use of harder drugs.

“Marijuana, the worst thing you’re going to do fall asleep and eat up everything in the house,” said Shawn Gowder of Chicago.

Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of National Organization to Reform Marijuana laws (NORML) was at the meeting and said he likes the bill even though he would prefer legalization.

“Conceptually I like it but the fines I feel are too stiff,” Linn said. “Like it was mentioned during the town hall meeting, low income people cannot afford a $500 fine, or a $1,000 ticket and then if they don’t pay it they’re going to be subject to a warrant for arrest so in my opinion the intent of the bill will be skewed because of the fines. We definitely support giving somebody a ticket instead of arresting them, but we do think that there shouldn’t be any criminal penalties for the responsible use of cannabis.”