WOODSTOCK – People hopeful that McHenry County will follow the example of some California prosecutors by dropping or reducing convictions for dated, low-level marijuana possession shouldn’t hold their breath.
Unless given clear instructions by the state, the county won’t be retroactively dismissing old convictions and charges, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said.
In July 2016, Illinois became the 21st state to pass a law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under old legislation, possession of 2.5 to 10 grams of marijuana was charged as a misdemeanor offense punishable by as many as six months in jail.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that with marijuana now legal in California, prosecutors in San Francisco and San Diego are moving to erase thousands of marijuana convictions en masse. The step could prove life-changing for some and could especially help minorities, who were more likely than whites to be arrested for such a crime, the wire service reported.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said his office wants to address the “wrongs that were caused by the failures of the war on drugs” and begin to fix the harm that was done both nationally and specifically to communities of color.
Kenneally, however, said that people found in possession of marijuana before the 2016 decriminalization still committed a crime in the eyes of the law – something his office doesn’t have power over.
“In a civil society where people choose their own representatives, every citizen has an obligation to comply with existing laws irrespective of their own beliefs in the prudence of particular laws or the possibility of certain laws being modified in the future,” Kenneally said.
Unlike California, where residents can use pot for recreation, marijuana use in Illinois is only legal for medical purposes for specified conditions.
Last month, state lawmakers discussed possible legislation that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Illinois. Executive action on the bill was postponed Jan. 30.
In McHenry County, the time not spent enforcing criminal marijuana laws hasn’t accumulated enough to make a real difference departmentwide in the sheriff’s office, McHenry County Sheriff Bill Prim said.
Individually, however, it’s allowed officers to remain focused on their respective beats, Prim said.
“The deputies are still required to issue a citation, write a [report], recover the marijuana, enter it into evidence and appear in court if the ticket is contested,” Prim said. “These incidents also occur at varied times and locations throughout the county and the only real time savings come when the deputies don’t have to immediately return to post with the offender. This may allow the deputy to return to his patrol assignments if necessary.”
Countywide, police are citing fewer people for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The number of charges and citations filed for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana have been on the decline, records filed in the McHenry County Circuit Clerk’s Office show.
In 2015, the county had 331 charges for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana – a criminal misdemeanor at the time. In 2016, the same year low-level possession was decriminalized in Illinois, 272 people were charged or cited in McHenry County.
In 2017, there were 152 citations. So far this year, 21 citations have been issued.
Misdemeanor drug charges – even those that don’t end with a conviction – can have serious, long-lasting repercussions.
Christopher Russell, a one-time Fox River Grove trustee candidate, was changed in 2015 with possession of between 2.5 and 10 grams of marijuana. A judge acquitted Russell of the charge after a bench trial the same year. Nonetheless, the accusation has continued to affect him personally, he said.
“An evening locked in that cage. Dread- and anxiety-filled months of wages, opportunities and time lost due to being dragged [through] the legal system,” Russell said. “This experience devastated me in a way I lack proper vocabulary to describe.”
Officers saw a multi-colored glass smoking pipe through the window of an unoccupied vehicle near Picnic Grove Park, according to the police report at the time. In addition to the pipe in the vehicle, police reportedly found a plastic bag with marijuana in it.
“Having your freedom, liberty, life, hopes, plans, aspirations and reputation forcefully and unjustly stripped from you changes you forever,” Russell said. “I wondered how this baseless accusation could have such power over me even when I knew the truth?”
Russell now dedicates his time to the study of Buddhist zen meditation.
“I am grateful to be with a wise and compassionate community who can recognize the truth of my character and my actions,” he said. “I am appreciative and blessed to be where I am, and wish others to be protected from experiencing such needless, unjust pain.”
In contrast to Russell’s case, the majority of the previously criminal marijuana possession cases were resolved before they made it to trial, Kenneally said.
“Nearly all of the prior [10 grams or less] marijuana possession cases were resolved short of trial through a negotiated plea of some kind,” the state’s attorney said.
The office will review people’s individual requests to expunge marijuana convictions from the public record on a case-by-case basis, Kenneally said.
“We’ll take them as they come and follow the law in seeking the appropriate resolution.”
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.