The Village of Oak Park is shifting the way it responds to marijuana possession, taking a new approach to squelching teen drug use.
Currently, if someone under 18 is caught with 30 grams or less of cannabis, the village defers to state laws, which requires an arrest. But a change that the village board is taking up on Wednesday, would have minors instead receive a ticket, keeping the offense a misdemeanor and off their record.
Those spearheading this shift are stopping short of calling it a step toward decriminalizing pot. Rather, it keeps possession of the drug a crime but redirects the response more toward healing and less toward punishment.
“It’s not decriminalizing, and we want to really stress that, because we are not ones to say that this isn’t a crime,” said Kristine Raino-Ogden, chairwoman of the parent group IMPACT, which proposed the changes. “It’s altering the consequences. It’s still a violation. It’s still a crime. But the ramifications are altered so that they’re not as punitive but more therapeutic. It doesn’t make sense to just slap a fine on a kid and have them continue doing what they’re doing.”
Under the proposed penalties, minors would receive a fine ranging from $30 to $300 for the first offense. That applies to possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis, along with any related paraphernalia (rolling papers, roach clips, water pipes or grinders). Selling or offering cannabis to a minor also constitutes a similar citation, which would jump by $50 to $500 on subsequent offenses.
The new policy also cracks down on the loophole that minors aren’t prohibited from possessing tobacco, just buying it. And it gives police the right to seize and destroy tobacco products, while increasing fines for use by minors.
George Thompson, an Oak Parker and member of IMPACT, said some of those “therapeutic” solutions to teen marijuana use include smoking intervention programs and “Face It” through the Oak Park Township, which forces parents and kids to get together and talk out the issue.
Also beneficial, Thompson said, is that the tickets would be heard through Oak Park’s local adjudication program, giving local officials more control of the outcome. He emphasized that IMPACT is taking no stance on marijuana use by adults.
Village President David Pope said that in county courts, kids are frequently just released with no meaningful consequences. Plus, he said, they have a black ball on their record that limits their future.
“Kids who are arrested for first-time use of small amounts of illegal drugs are most often simply released by the courts with no mechanism for meaningful follow up,” he said. “The lesson that too many kids take away from that encounter with the justice system is that there is no significant accountability for their actions, but at the same time, they already have a criminal record.”
River Forester Raino-Ogden said, despite the stiff fines, punishments outlined are helpful to teens in the long run.
“It really is a gift for a kid to be caught because then parents can take action,” she said. “It gives the police officers more tools without wrecking a kid’s life.”