In January, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, introduced Illinois House Bill 218 to amend the Cannabis Control Act. If passed, the amendment would eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession of up to 30 grams and replace them with a $100 fine. In explaining her support for the bill, Cassidy said, "Low level offenders don't belong in jail."
HB 218 was referred to the Rules Committee on Friday. The Illinois Policy Institute, a fiscally conservative think tank, came out in support of the reform.
Pointing out that Illinois already has the country's "fifth-highest arrest rate for marijuana" and that it "costs Illinois taxpayers $38,000 a year to keep just one person in prison," Bryant Jackson-Green writes that the bill:
"...recognizes the simple truth that it makes no sense to consume our justice system's resources, or to take taxpayers' hard-earned dollars, to punish low-level possession.
"Given the state of Illinois' finances, residents simply can't afford to keep relying on incarceration to address every activity someone disapproves of," he adds.
A more permissive bill is also being considered in the State Senate that would allow for possession of up to 30 grams and the cultivation of up to five plants. Although Illinois has had a medical marijuana law in effect since 2014, other past efforts at loosening marijuana laws have passed the Senate, but failed in the House.
However, there is still resistance in some quarters for reforming marijuana laws. Debbie Leininger, the Illinois director for Concerned Women for America, wrote in a recent op-ed urging defeat of the bills:
"Legalization can be expected to increase marijuana consumption by four to six times. States that have legalized marijuana show an increase in traffic accidents by marijuana users as well as lethal overdoses of the substance. Marijuana contains 50-70 percent more cancer-causing substances than tobacco smoke."
Budget considerations may ultimately play a role if the legislation makes it to the governor's desk. Facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit, Illinois is already in the midst of a spending freeze under new Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. Last week, Rauner announced an executive order cutting much of the spending for CeaseFire, a controversial program to combat violence.
Although not formally legalizing marijuana, Illinois House Bill 218 may eventually gain support because of how much it could potentially save taxpayers.