- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Another attempt to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana statewide is again in front of Illinois lawmakers, but as before, they face strong opposition from law enforcement and anti-pot advocates.

The omnibus bill in the Senate also sets a standard for what’s considered too high to drive and automatically purges municipal citation records for possession annually, unless local governments decide against it. Opponents of the legislation dislike both of those provisions, too, saying there should be zero tolerance and that expunging records will make it difficult to determine when someone needs drug treatment.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed last year’s attempt to decriminalize pot, but gave lawmakers guidance on how to proceed if they tried again. Instead of the making the possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana a civil offense, punishable with a fine between $55 and $125, Rauner wanted - and legislators have proposed - the threshold to be lower (10 grams or less) and the fines higher - between $100 and $200.

“We are encouraged to see the General Assembly on a path to accept the governor’s changes, and will continue monitoring the legislation as it moves forward,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said.

The bill, which could get a final vote in the Senate as soon as next month before it moves to the House, comes as many states are rethinking how they should punish pot possession. Illinois is among 15 states that proposed legislation this year to decriminalize marijuana possession, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon have legalized the drug for recreational use by adults. Several states have medical marijuana, including Illinois’ 4-year pilot program for which sales began in November. And about 100 Illinois communities, including Chicago, already give police discretion to issue citations instead of making arrests for small amounts of the drug.

Lawmakers behind the decriminalization effort have been optimistic about its chances because they view the bill as aligning with Rauner’s goal to reduce the state’s prison population over the next decade and as a way to provide a more consistent approach to how law enforcement treats possession of small quantities.

“It’s so that everybody is treated the same,” said Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat who’s one of the bill sponsors. She added that she worries about racial disparities with who gets arrested instead of cited. A 2014 study from Roosevelt University found black people in Illinois were seven times more likely than whites to be arrested on possession charges instead of being ticketed.

The broader movement in the state and elsewhere to ease or get rid of laws on marijuana use, whether recreationally or medically, is worrisome to groups like the Illinois Family Institute.

“The message that the state of Illinois has is: This isn’t such a big deal. That’s a terrible message,” said Ralph Rivera, lobbyist for the group.

Steans’ bill also seeks to give guidance to law enforcement for what’s considered too high to drive. Currently, any trace of marijuana is enough to be considered impaired, but pot advocates have long criticized zero-tolerance states’ approach because marijuana can stay in a person’s system for several weeks.

With the bill, a driver’s blood would have to contain 5 nanograms of THC, marijuana’s intoxicating chemical, within two hours of consumption.

That’s not good enough for law enforcement officials, including said Patrick O’Connor, a spokesman for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the Moraine Valley Community College police.

“For years and years we’ve said in this state and nationally, if you drink don’t drive,” he said, “what we’re looking at with the marijuana usage is, after two hours you’re good.”

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