Long Overdue, Drug Prosecution Reform Comes to Chicago

By Zachary Siegel 04/21/15

Crowded prisons, racial disparities, and petty drug offenses hope to be curbed by the new program.

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In an attempt to address addiction and chronic drug abuse as a public health problem instead of a criminal one, Chicago is in the midst of changing the way it prosecutes drug crimes. It’s a coincidence that the reform happened to be announced on 4/20, national weed day.

Dismissal of misdemeanor, low-level drug offenses in Chicago’s Cook County is just one of the ways the state attorney’s office says it will be amending how it prosecutes marijuana-related crimes.

State attorney’s spokeswoman Sally Daly said that the office is also working toward changing the way they prosecute small amounts of other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy.

"If someone is caught with a misdemeanor amount of marijuana, the state's attorney's office will no longer prosecute that case," said Daly.

The alternative prosecution program has larger aims to divert nonviolent, repeat drug offenders out of the criminal justice system.

As it stands, Class 4 felony possession is punishable by three years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines. The new overhaul states that offenders will be connected with social service agencies for substance abuse treatment referrals as opposed to current punishments.

"Currently, our big emphasis is pushing toward treatment,” Daly said.

Executive director of the Illinois National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Dan Linn, welcomes the changes. In 2012, Chicago adopted an ordinance allowing police to issue tickets for someone caught with up to 15 grams of pot. He said that more whites were ticketed and minorities arrested, and hopes that such changes will reduce the racial disparity.

“For too long, the Cook County prison system has been overcrowded with individuals in need of treatment and the opportunity for a second chance,” said local Chicago activist, Chelsea Laliberte. She hopes to see positive changes from the new overhaul. 

Supporters of the new program also say that taking the focus off of petty drug crimes will allow for more resources to be put toward more dangerous crimes, like gangs and guns.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.