Legal Weed Blazes Forward In Illinois: Governor Axes Jail Time For Personal Use

Legal weed has gone from pipe dream to reality in the space of a decade, and now the state of Illinois will be joining the 16 other states that no longer criminalize marijuana possession for personal use.

On Friday, state governor Bruce Rauner signed a bill into law which decriminalizes marijuana. Effective immediately, citizens will no longer be subject to the 30 days to six months in jail they could previously face for being caught with weed, reported The Chicago Tribune.

Still, Illinois hasn’t quite hit the full-on legal weed status of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, or Washington. Although marijuana possession is no longer technically a crime in Illinois, it does remain a civil offense. Those caught with under 10 grams will still face a fine of up to $200. However, no such charges will be held on an individual’s record for more than six months.

In addition to the push away from illegal weed, those who test positive for marijuana in their system will no longer face a DUI unless they have more than “5 nanograms or more of THC in their blood, or 10 nanograms or more of THC in their saliva.”

Much of the debate around whether or not the state would take such action on marijuana legalization hinged on high rates of criminal incarceration in the state. Last year, Illinois spent roughly $1.4 billion on maintaining its jail and prison system. Illinois Policy estimates that around $22,000 is spent for each inmate, with about 650 people imprisoned for marijuana-related charges and another 700 on parole.

“Marijuana possession is probably the most minor offense that can result in incarceration and is a serious waste of limited criminal-justice resources. Abolishing jail time for low-level marijuana possession can prevent the family hardship that often results when a person is incarcerated, as well as job loss, thereby preserving an offender’s long-term prospects for legal employment. Moreover, according to a financial impact analysis by the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, exchanging criminal penalties for civil fines would result in a net benefit of up to $24 million to the state of Illinois over three years, including $15.1 million in avoided incarceration costs and up to $9.1 million in estimated ticket revenue from the fines.”

Although several of the lawmakers who pushed for the bill’s passage did so out of concern for “limited law enforcement resources,” others cited social justice as a motivation. Minority communities often do more time for weed than their Caucasian counterparts, despite the fact that most research shows that use is about the same for both blacks and whites. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that nationally, African-Americans are four times more likely to serve a sentence for marijuana.

The push toward an increasingly legal status for weed is likely to be popular in the state. A poll released in April found that 92 percent of Illinois citizens favored reducing criminal sentences for minor, non-violent offenses. Another survey, released in March by Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, found that more than 80 percent of respondents favored legalizing medical marijuana. On the other hand, a full legalization of recreational marijuana has still not yet claimed a clear majority — 51 percent of those surveyed still opposed such a measure.

David Yepsen, the institute’s director, noted that several factors may contribute to changing attitudes about the legalization of weed in Illinois.

“We see clear support for medicinal marijuana, but recreational use is a mixed bag. Medical use, recreational use, and decriminalization are all related but are still distinct public policy issues in the minds of many voters. They are likely to be issues in the debate over criminal justice reform, new revenues and public health.”

How close do you think Illinois is to legal weed?

[Photo via Matilde Campodonico/AP Images]