State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8), who represents a portion of south Forest Park, recently introduced a bill to the Illinois General Assembly that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. And last week, Ford hosted a forum about that bill at Oak Park’s village hall.

Ford’s bill would make the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a petty offense, akin to a traffic ticket. The only punishment would be a fine. 

The goals of the bill, Ford said, are to stop making criminals out of pot smokers, to save tax dollars, and to free up police officers’ time so it can be used to do more important work. 

Ford also said that he hoped a stiff fine would persuade marijuana smokers to change their habits and seek treatment.

“The goal is to make sure we are proactive and help make sure that individuals who violate the law become more responsible … [while making] taxpayers less responsible for their [violators’] 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 later on, he said.

Treatment for pot smoking is also something Ford talked about. “This will send people immediately to treatment,” Ford said. “Hopefully it will keep them from moving into criminal activity.”  His bill does not mandate treatment, though.

The proposed legislation currently calls for a $500 fine for the first offense and $750 for the second violation. The third time someone breaks the law, and any time after, the fine is $1,000. 

The bill calls for 50 percent of all fines to be shared with the local law enforcement agencies that seize the pot. But, after the forum, Ford said that he plans to amend his bill to lower the fines based on feedback he received.

Walter Boyd, the director of the Chicago nonprofit Criminal Justice Initiatives at Protestants for the Common Good and a member of the panel that, alongside Ford, discussed the bill, supports the proposed legislation. But, he said that legalization of marijuana would be better because it would remove 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 is creating dangerous communities. I don’t think decriminalization will end this.”

Boyd said that the drug trade should be taxed and regulated. “Right now nobody’s checking IDs on the street when they’re buying marijuana,” he said.

James Swartz, a UIC professor and another panel member, appeared to support the bill. He noted that 40 percent of Americans older than 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 that 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.”

Many in the audience agreed.

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

Two other panel members, Bruce Banks, a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois State police, and Pat Coughlin, deputy chief of the Cook County state’s attorney’s narcotics bureau, both opposed decriminalization. 

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

The audience of about 50 people was overwhelmingly in favor of decriminalization, though.

Dan Linn, the 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. “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?”

“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.”

Ford said that he was happy with the forum and thinks his bill may eventually become law.

“From the audience I heard a lot of positive input and some real meaningful additions to the bill that I’ve taken note of. I will amend the bill to make it better,” he said.