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Back in 2003, when I was elected to the Carbondale City Council, possession of less than ten grams o
Chris Wissmann

Back in 2003, when I was elected to the Carbondale City Council, possession of less than ten grams of marijuana was a misdemeanor punishable by fines of $750 to $1,500 plus imprisonment. The Jackson County State’s Attorney at the time, Mike Wepsiec, suggested to then-councilman Lance Jack and I that Carbondale use its home-rule authority to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana so he could focus on more serious crimes.

Jack and I brought the idea to then-mayor Brad Cole, and in March 2004 Carbondale passed a pioneering ordinance that made possession of ten grams or less a city-ordinance violation— basically akin to a traffic ticket— with a penalty of $250 to $750, or $125 plus twenty-five hours of community service.

The ordinance didn’t transform Carbondale into the ganja equivalent of Needle Park, nor did fines for marijuana offenses turn into a huge moneymaker for the city. Instead, the number of cannabis citations remained pretty consistent during the remainder of my city-council tenure.

At the end of July, however, the state of Illinois caught up to and zipped past Carbondale. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law Senate Bill 2228, which dramatically dropped the state’s penalties for small amounts of marijuana. Under the new state statute, simple possession of ten grams or less can no longer result in arrest, and instead of a misdemeanor it’s a civil-law violation with fines ranging from $100 to $200. Offenses are automatically expunged upon payment of the fines.

Senate Bill 2228 also left intact local laws like Carbondale’s. In other words, where marijuana is concerned, Carbondale went from being one of the kindest communities in the state to one of the harshest.

That, however, needn’t remain the case.

While Senate Bill 2228 didn’t overturn Carbondale’s ordinance, it also doesn’t explicitly preempt home rule. The Cannabis Control Act and, surprisingly, the Controlled Substances Act don’t appear to do so, either. This is what allowed Urbana to set fines for marijuana possession at $50 in April— months before Senate Bill 2228 became law— after a failed attempt to drop it to $5.

Where small amounts of marijuana are concerned, Carbondale should once again take the lead as the state’s most progressive city. The city council here should move fines to where Urbana dared to consider but couldn’t quite muster up the will to go, and set them at $5— effectively legalizing small amounts of marijuana.

Carbondale can do this with eyes wide open. While hardly the most dangerous substance in the pharmacopeia, marijuana isn’t an entirely benevolent substance or its use completely consequence-free as some legalization supporters claim. (Comparisons to alcohol and tobacco often miss, or dismiss, this point.) Though the links between smoking marijuana and cancer aren’t firmly established, inhaling hot smoke of any kind can deliver numerous carcinogens to the lungs. The long-term effects of the many chemicals in marijuana are not well-studied. No state of inebriation is physically or psychologically healthy or responsible. None of these are entirely personal effects— some of the costs accrue to society at large.

People who use drugs in harmful ways, however, either don’t know or don’t care what they’re doing to themselves. Thus, the public-health impacts of marijuana consumption are matters for educators and counselors and not police and prosecutors, who need to focus enforcement efforts toward activities where the victimhood is substantially less self-inflicted.

Thus, even if it can, Carbondale shouldn’t remove restrictions or lower the penalties for trafficking, impaired driving, or public consumption. The first two offenses create serious public-safety issues. Establishing the third restriction would make public marijuana use consistent with ordinances against the public consumption of alcohol— except when Fair Days designations are granted by the city council, for example, Carbondale prohibits people from drinking alcohol in parks, on streets and sidewalks, and other public places. People who wish to use marijuana should do so at home.

(Speaking of alcohol, this might be a good time for the Carbondale City Council to consider reducing fines for underage possession of alcohol and lowering the bar-entry age, too.)

 

Carbondale can then join states like Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington in an experiment to see where legalization (or, in our case, quasi-legalization) leads. This writer’s bet: Just as decriminalization didn’t significantly change the number of marijuana citations issued by the Carbondale Police Department, neither will lowering the fine to a token level.