As we as a nation move toward decriminalizing recreational use of cannabis, we need to start working on freeing those still in jail for cannabis.
While it’s hard to find exact numbers of those incarcerated in Illinois for marijuana position, distribution or cultivation, looking at the numbers for possible charges makes one queasy.
For possession, depending on the amount of marijuana a person has on them at arrest and if this is their first or a repeated offense, they can pay from as little as a $200 Civil Violation fine up to 30 years in prison for a felony and pay a $25,000 fine.
Growing cannabis raises the bar. Incarceration time starts at one year, and depending on the amount someone is growing, it can go up to 30 years. Starting with a $1,500 fine and increasing up to $100,000.
For the sale and trafficking of marijuana, it’s even more intense. Again, depending on the amount, it can be anywhere from six months to 60 years, and a $1,500 fine to a $200,000 fine, and it jumps quickly from a misdemeanor to a felony.
And these are just Illinois’ laws. Some states have stricter and some have more lax.
If we move towards decriminalizing recreational marijuana use, we need to work towards freeing those who are in prison for those higher digit numbers. Why should they be in jail for something that is becoming legal across the country?
In 2016, there was a statewide bill that became law that lowered sentencing for having less than 10 grams of marijuana on your person—making it just a fine to pay and a year to sit in jail. Up until that point, this was where the majority of arrests came from, arresting people for small amounts of marijuana position. In 2016 before the bill went into effect, 70 percent of all marijuana arrests were these small amount charges.
For 2014, it was 74 percent; in 2010, it was 85 percent.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report that analyzed marijuana possession arrest data nationwide and found that marijuana use was roughly equal among blacks and whites, with more whites ages 18–25 saying they had used marijuana in the last year. But African Americans, the report concluded, were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. And in Cook County specifically, the report found that in 2010, African-Americans were about seven times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
In the United States, marijuana is a Schedule I drug in the same ranks as heroin, LSD, ecstasy and methaqualone (quaalude). Marijuana typically does not create the same reactions or life long changes to brain chemistry the way these other drugs do, but is criminalized the same way.
Illinois is heading in the direction of decriminalizing marijuana, but we also need to call our lawmakers to help those with felony charges on their record and dozens of years in jail.