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Illinois pardons are a reminder of the scale of marijuana arrests, past and present

Illinois pardons are a reminder of the scale of marijuana arrests, past and present


Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

On Dec. 31, Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois announced that he would issue 11,017 pardons to people with low-level marijuana convictions. That announcement came on the eve of the state’s marijuana legalization going into effect.

Illinois’s law, passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor last year, makes it the 11th state to make recreational marijuana legal for people over 21 and the first to do so via legislation rather than ballot initiatives. The law makes the possession of small amounts of marijuana legal and allows licensed dealers to sell cannabis and cannabis products. It also incorporates a number of measures intended to remedy the injustices and harms of marijuana criminalization that largely affected Black and Latinx communities.

As he announced the pardons at a church on Chicago’s South Side, Pritzker said “the defining purpose of legalization is to maximize equity for generations to come.” The pardons, he promised, are only the first step in erasing the records of the hundreds of thousands of people across the state who have criminal records from low-level marijuana charges.

All told, state officials estimate that a total of 116,000 convictions involving 30 grams or less of marijuana are eligible for pardons under the new law, reported CBS News. The process is not automatic, but state officials have sought to make it as close to automatic as possible. There are also an estimated 572,000 marijuana arrests that will be expunged over the next five years. People may also apply for expungements of convictions for marijuana possession over 30 grams,  putting the total number of possible pardons at over 700,000.

That number is a reminder of the enormous scale of marijuana arrests in this country and the millions of people subjected to state force under marijuana prohibition. Marijuana laws, in Illinois and elsewhere, moreover, were and are not enforced equally. Despite similar rates of use between Black and white people, Black people are arrested for marijuana offenses at rates several times higher than those for white people.

A sobering fact is that racial disparities dog even those states that have taken steps toward legalization, as Vox’s German Lopez reported last year. As for cities, in New York City, where the total number of marijuana arrests dropped significantly following decriminalization by legislation last summer, the arrests for low-level marijuana possession that did take place in the immediate aftermath of the law were overwhelmingly of people of color. From June through September, officers arrested 262 Black and Latinx people for marijuana possession, reported Patch. They arrested 20 white people.

Nevertheless, legalization laws like Illinois’s seem consistent with the national mood regarding marijuana, and perhaps even a softening in attitudes toward drug possession (but not drug sales) more generally. In a November survey by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of respondents thought marijuana should be legal, including a majority of Republicans. A third of U.S. residents now live in the 11 states and the District of Columbia where marijuana possession is decriminalized or legalized.

And yet, marijuana arrests continue apace. The FBI’s 2018 Uniform Crime Report, data from a majority of U.S. jurisdictions, shows that they remain the largest category of arrests among drug offenses and the largest category of arrest offenses over all. The New York Times’s Upshot reported in November: “Drugs have been the top reason people have been arrested in the United States for at least the past 10 years, and marijuana has been the top drug involved in those arrests.” Moreover, the fraction of arrests that were possession rather than sale or manufacturing went up in 2018. The numbers are staggering: “In 2018, there were 663,367 arrests involving marijuana, up from 659,700 in 2017, nearly 92 percent of them for possession.”

Tom Angell pointed out in Forbes: “There were more busts for marijuana last year than arrests for aggravated assault, burglary, arson, fraud, disorderly conduct or sex offenses, among other crime categories. Meanwhile, police only cleared 33 percent of rapes, 30 percent of robberies and 14 percent of burglaries by making an arrest.”

The attachment to marijuana arrests is evident in Fairfax County, Virginia. Steve Descano, the county’s new commonwealth’s attorney, ran on a platform of ending mass incarceration and specifically pledged to not prosecute low-level marijuana possession cases. In an interview with Daniel Nichanian of The Appeal: Political Report before his election in November, he explained his reasons, citing the racial disparities in marijuana arrests, the consequences of having a marijuana arrest on one’s record, and the immigration consequences for non-citizens.

A local NBC reporter, Drew Wilder, took to Twitter yesterday to describe the first day of Descano’s policy of not charging simple possession. The judge initially refused to grant the prosecutor’s motions to dismiss seven marijuana possession cases, and then relented. The Fairfax County police department, however, wrote Wilder, “says Descano’s policy will not change nor affect how officers enforce Virginia’s marijuana possession laws.”