Up In Smoke

Up In Smoke - Feature

Since the release last spring of a study highlighting major inconsistencies in the way minor marijuana cases are handled in Illinois, Roosevelt University drug policy researcher Kathie Kane-Willis has been on a mission.

Talking with media, elected officials, law enforcement leaders and community groups, Kane-Willis (BA, ’01; MA, ’05) is spreading the word that uniform treatment for those caught with minor amounts of marijuana is lacking in Illinois. African Americans are nearly eight times more likely than Caucasians to be arrested for minor pot possession, even though the option of handing out tickets and fines has been available in places like the city of Chicago where a ticketing ordinance was put in place in 2012 in part to address the racial disparity issue.

The Roosevelt study, entitled “Patchwork Policy: An Evaluation of Arrests and Tickets for Marijuana Misdemeanors in Illinois,” looks at misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests vs. tickets and fines issued for minor marijuana possession in 18 municipalities in the state.

Although the research found decreases in arrests in communities where pot-ticket laws were used, the majority of cases in the municipalities reviewed were for arrests, not tickets. Illinois ranked third in the nation in terms of racial disparity in arrests, with African Americans 7.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested on minor marijuana possession charges. Even after enactment of the pot-ticket law, arrests for minor amounts of marijuana were found to be on the rise in predominantly minority neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides, a finding that was not lost on the Chicago media or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“We should have one way and a single policy for handling minor marijuana cases, not the patchwork of different approaches that we are seeing – in one case triggering arrest and in another leading to a ticket,” said Kane-Willis.

What she ultimately wants is for Illinois lawmakers to decriminalize marijuana and come up with a plan for taxing and regulating pot that could help lift the state out of its mire of debt. Now, less than five months after the study received coverage in Chicago, Illinois and national media, Emanuel has called for state lawmakers in Illinois to decriminalize possession of minor amounts of marijuana.

In response to the study’s findings and Kane-Willis’ recommendations, Chicago police have streamlined use of pot tickets, significantly stepping up issuance of tickets since the report was published.

Entering her 10th year as founder and head of Roosevelt’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, Kane-Willis recently was recognized by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the nation’s drug czar Michael Botticelli for bringing attention to the nation’s drug overdose crisis. Kane-Willis in 2009 was a leader in helping persuade Illinois lawmakers to legalize Naloxone, a drug proven to save lives from heroin and other opioid overdoses. And in 2011, she helped convince legislators to give limited immunity from prosecution to so-called “good Samaritans” who call 911 to report drug overdoses.

Kane-Willis has authored multiple drug-policy studies, many with help from Roosevelt students. She also established an Overdose Awareness Day, drawing hundreds to Roosevelt’s Schaumburg Campus in 2012 and 2013 in memory of overdose victims.

Kathie Kane-Willis is a leading advocate for drug policy reform in Illinois  and around the nation.

Kathie Kane-Willis is a leading advocate for drug policy reform in Illinois and around the nation.


“I tell students who are interested in changing policy, and particularly drug policy, not to get frustrated. It took us 10 years of hard work to make many of these changes, but when opportunities for change arise, you have to be ready and willing to pounce,” she said.

A leading voice on issues like the nation’s heroin epidemic among suburban teens and disparate sentencing practices that put more blacks than whites behind bars for drug possession, Kane-Willis had been addicted to heroin more than two decades ago at the age of 20. In 2009, she publically shared her story. “Coming out about her own struggle was courageous and bold,” said Asha Bandele, advocacy director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Advocacy Grants Program. “She did it on behalf of people being labeled and stigmatized by their drug use, and her action spoke volumes in conveying the message that drug users are people first.”

Kicking addiction with methadone treatment, Kane-Willis, at 28, wanted to finish college and took the advice of her father, Don Kane, (BA, ’63), an economics major who was staff director of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Council on Economic Advising and later assistant director of the city’s Economic Development Commission before starting a consulting business. “Roosevelt always has had an urban and progressive mission. It’s a place that has made tremendous contributions to social policy and improving city life, and I’m pleased that Kathie has been able to be a part of that tradition,” he said.

A Roosevelt Honors Program student, Kane-Willis did her senior thesis on African-American experiences with Jim Crow laws. James Lewis, former director of Roosevelt’s Institute for Metropolitan Affairs (IMA), who today is senior program officer and director of research and evaluation for the Chicago Community Trust, was Kane-Willis’s thesis advisor. Impressed by her interviewing and writing skills, he hired her as research assistant, and she later became assistant director and then associate director of the IMA.

Now Kane-Willis is facing one of her biggest challenges: How to move Illinois forward, as other states have already done or are considering, in redefining marijuana policy, which for years has been tied to the criminal justice system.

“Violence is an issue in Chicago. The police are being ordered to make arrests and talk to people carrying guns and the consequence of that is marijuana arrests,” said Mick Dumke, a writer at the Chicago Reader, who has been reporting since 2011 on Chicago’s inconsistent enforcement of marijuana laws.

Illinois Senator Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) believes it’s wrong – and detrimental – for African Americans to be singled out for arrest in cases involving minor possession of marijuana.

“The police are supposed to be writing tickets in these cases, and as the study shows, they’re not doing it,” said Hunter, who has been working for nearly a decade to change a criminal justice system in Illinois and even across the nation that is much more likely to arrest and put African Americans behind bars than whites for drug offenses.

“It seems it’s easier for law enforcement to lock someone up than it is to give a ticket, and as a result, we’ve got people out there who can’t get jobs, can’t get into school and can’t take care of their families,” she said. “This study is a wake-up call for us to have discussions, hearings and legislation that can address the racial disproportionalities we are seeing in our criminal justice system, and we shouldn’t put it on a shelf. It’s time we take some action,” she said.

“This study is a wake-up call for us to have discussions, hearings and legislation that can address the racial disproportionalities we are seeing in our criminal justice system, and we shouldn’t put it on a shelf. It’s time we take some action,” said Kane-Willis.

Since releasing the report, Kane-Willis also has been working with community leaders in Evanston, Ill., who want reforms based on her finding that blacks are more likely than whites or Latinos to receive pot tickets.

“We’re getting into the nitty-gritty on things like ‘How do you give tickets?’ A lot of drug policy people don’t get involved with that kind of stuff, but I believe it’s where you need to go if you want change to happen,” Kane-Willis said.

Her work is adding to the ongoing conversation in Chicago, Illinois and around the nation on handling of recreational marijuana, with polls showing growing numbers of Americans in favor of decriminalization and/or legalization.

“In the last few years, the pace has picked up in talking about changing our drug policies,” said Dumke. “Kathie has been one of the people right in the middle of that and this study is an important part of the ongoing conversation.”

Kane-Willis is cautiously optimistic about change that seems to be on the horizon.

“I’m really encouraged by the changes that have happened over the last few months. Sometimes, you feel like you are banging your head against the wall – and then – all of a sudden the landscape changes. It’s very heartening,” she said.

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