Somewhere between legalizing marijuana and throwing young people in jail for its personal possession, there is a better way. And state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th), who represents Oak Park and Austin in Springfield, is narrowing in on it.
Ford will hold a town hall meeting next month to gather locals' reaction to his proposal to shift the focus from criminal prosecution of individuals found to be holding less than an ounce of marijuana to a system of fines and treatment.
He put a bill forward in the legislature in January calling for such an approach, and it may be the loneliest legislation in the state capital. Ford is the sole sponsor and it hasn't seen the light of day since it landed in the rules committee back in March.
That's not to say that Ford is alone in pushing this approach. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is becoming ever more direct in saying the county government is swamped — both its courts and its jail — with minor drug offenses. And there is no rational argument that says we are protecting society or benefiting young men, disproportionately young black men, by leaving them with hard time in a tough jail and a criminal record that further sinks their opportunities.
Change is overdue and Ford's balanced approach deserves a fair hearing. He is not legalizing pot. He is decriminalizing minor possession, levying stiff fines for perpetrators and using that pool of funds both to expand policing and to provide treatment to users.
We've spent a year detailing concerns about drug and alcohol excesses among local teens. But, like Ford, our desire has never been to be punitive. We want local parents and local institutions, including OPRF High School and the police, to take the abuse issues more seriously, to not write off the regular use of pot or alcohol abuse as youthful indiscretion. A focus on prevention, counseling, treatment and accountability for both kids and their parents is the right path.
Nowhere do we suggest that incarceration and criminal records are part of the solution. There is a sensible, middle ground. And Rep. Ford is leading us to it.