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Illinois House passes plan to lower penalties for minor drug offenses

REP. CAROL AMMONS

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - State representatives passed a proposal Wednesday to help people struggling with drug addiction receive community drug treatment instead of putting them in jail. House Bill 3447 also lowers the penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs.

Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana) says no one should be "thrown away" for drug possession. She hopes her plan can prevent people from spiraling downward in the prison system.

This measure reduces the penalty for low-level possession of drugs from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor. The proposal could also allow people to ask for expungement of minor drug records and retroactive resentencing. Ammons feels that can help many across Illinois restart their lives.

Advocates say locking people up for drug possession or drug use can't "magically" change their lives. Ammons stressed that lawmakers needed this proposal during the 1980's war on drugs.

"This initiative will give them an opportunity to true treatment as opposed to putting a felony on people for possession of drugs," Ammons said. "It will also remove the barrier to housing and jobs that come along with giving people felonies."

Republicans: "This is not the time"

However, Republicans raised concern over lowering the penalties for use of meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl.

Rep. Patrick Windhorst (R-Metropolis) noted that the bill eliminates the offense for possession with intent to deliver less than three grams of meth. Three grams may sound like a small amount. However, Windhorst, a former state's attorney, explained personal use of meth usually consists of less than half a gram.

"This is not the time to be taking this action. Methamphetamine is a tremendous problem in rural portions of our state," Windhorst said. "It is a problem that we're trying to deal with through treatment options, through options in the code of corrections which already exist, which allow us to get individuals treatment...and avoid a felony conviction. Courts and our law enforcement are working on a daily basis to address this problem of drug addiction."

Rep. Jeff Keicher (R-Sycamore) lost a family member to overdose shortly after she moved in with a drug dealer. Keicher said she had been clean for eight to ten years before the overdose.

"I am so very frustrated by the duality of needing to allow people a second chance, but the frustration that we have people that will continue to flout the law and seek every chance they can to continue to damage lives beyond their own," Keicher said.

He also asked representatives to vote against the bill on behalf of his deceased relative.

Thinking of those in need of help

Although, Democrats said the best course of action is drug treatment outside of prisons. They noted that the Department of Corrections cannot act as a mental health facility or hospital.

Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. (D-Chicago) said Republicans have to look at the facts about the war on drugs.

"It is a fact that the men in my family, that my friends, they still have minor petty criminal records obstructing them from opportunities. Have you looked in the face of a man who wants to take care of his family, but is missing out on the opportunity because of something he did at the age of 19? What did you do at 19? I'm sorry about those folks affected by drugs, but I had to look at my father when he was addicted was drugs."

Evans explained his father dealt with drug abuse for decades until turning things around in his fifties. He said lawmakers need to find a way to help people move past mistakes and succeed in society. Evans said Illinois should become a state of opportunity with this bill.

"Let's wrap our arms around all of those in need. My community has suffered," Evans said. "Come look at it. Come talk to the people that suffered. It's real, guys. We have an opportunity."

The proposal passed on a 61-49 vote. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.

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Mike Miletich

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