This week, the ACLU released a new update to a 2013 report on the cost of cannabis enforcement across the United States, both in terms of costs and the impact on individual lives. Unsurprisingly, the report shows that the war on cannabis rages on: nationally, law enforcement made more than 6.1 million cannabis-related arrests from 2010 to 2018 - more arrests than for all violent crimes combined. These arrests eat up an enormous amount of resources from law enforcement and the criminal legal system and fall most heavily on people of color.
While extreme racial disparities persist in cannabis arrests all across the country, Illinois’ record is particularly poor. While people of different races use and sell drugs at similar rates, people of color are much more likely than whites to be arrested, convicted, incarcerated, and harshly sentenced for drug offenses. Black residents of Illinois were seven times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession before the State regulated purchase and possession. Illinois had the third highest rate of bias in cannabis arrests in the United States, surpassed only by Montana and Kentucky.
It is no longer debatable that the War on Drugs has been a dismal failure, ravaging communities of color and diverting resources from public health, including substance abuse treatment. Illinois took a big step forward last year with its new law legalizing cannabis for adult use - but it was only one step. A person can still be arrested, fined, or lose their housing, job or vehicle for a cannabis violation. This new report makes clear that we must continue to monitor data to ensure that residual cannabis enforcement is not conducted in a discriminatory fashion.
It is time to take the next step. Harsh laws about the possession of other drugs has the same disproportionate impact on minority communities and entangles hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal legal system every year at a tremendous cost. Black communities continue to bear the overwhelming brunt of enforcement of Illinois’ antiquated drug laws, and are hardest-hit by overdose fatalities.
Despite decades of responding to drug use with increasingly harsh punishments, Illinois is still experiencing unprecedented numbers of fatal overdoses and a growing need for access to addiction treatment. It is clear that felony convictions don’t stop people from using or selling drugs, they only limit people’s opportunities for employment and education.
Illinois’ current level of incarceration is unsustainable, especially in the time of a massive public health crisis. This is why we must continue working to reduce criminal penalties for drug offenses. By reclassifying small-scale drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, we can free up resources currently wasted on imprisonment to help people access health services in the communities where they live.
Illinois jails are dangerous and overcrowded, a reality clearer now that we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic. These facilities are no place to send people who need treatment for health needs. It is time for Illinois to start treating addiction as a critical public health issue and stop incarcerating people for drug possession.