For seven years, methamphetamine users have been one of the few drug using groups that did not have the option to participate in Treatment Alternative for Safe Communities (TASC) as part of their sentencing if they committed a first-time, minor, non-violent drug possession offense.
But now SB 3423, signed by Gov. Quinn on Aug. 2, would offer individuals caught for the first-time with 15 grams or less of meth the option to go into drug treatment instead of jail.
State legislation passed in August 2005 to regulate punishment for methamphetamine use originally overlooked this option, and a "tough on drugs" political climate made it difficult for legislators to change, say advocates, even if in the long run such treatment options would help reduce use.
"For any other drug, like heroin or cocaine, TASC treatment has been available," said Kathleen Kane, from the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.
But the Methamphetamine Control and Community Protection Act (MCCPA), drafted by the office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, was put forward as a 'tough on drugs' rewriting of Illinois' criminal laws dealing with meth.
"Landmark legislation signed into law this summer will keep methamphetamine makers out of communities and in jail, helping to protect children, families, farmers, and communities from the extraordinary dangers of meth manufacture," wrote Madigan's office shortly after the bill was signed in 2005.
According to Kane, "the state legislature never meant to stop a treatment alternative from getting put in place, but because of the drug scare around meth it was really hard to undo the damage."
"Hysteria around methamphetamine made it ineligible and made the penalty so much more severe," said Kane, because "you would want [users] to have access to treatment, especially the first time" they are caught with the substance.
The legislation comes as meth continues to decrease nationally. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2002 the average number of first-time users 12 and over of methamphetamine was 299,000, which fell to 157,000 in 2007 and 105,000 in 2010. This is out of an estimated 353,000 general users in 2010.
Compared to cocaine, which was available for TASC treatment, the number is significantly lower. The National Survey found that there were 2.4 million general cocaine users aged 12 or older in 2006, but that has fallen to 1.5 million users in the more recent 2010 statistics.
Since the MCCPA was signed there has been something of a revolution, both locally and nationally, in approaches to incarcerating people for non-violent drug offenses, led by tightening budgets and a better understanding of drug abuse.
Nationally, the trend has been to divert people into treatment instead of incarceration, according to Bill Piper from the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance advocacy group. "It is far more cost effective than sending people to jail or prison and reduces the demand for drugs, which reduces the supply for drugs."
Locally, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has led the push since 2011 to keep low-level offenders, including those charged with drug crimes, out of an already overburdened jail system.
Advocates such as Kane and Daphne Baille, the director of communications at TASC, the agency which leads the recovery program, applaud the change by SB 3423.
But the bill is unlikely to be retroactive, says Baille.
This means the people who ended up behind bars for first-time, low-level methamphetamine offenses in the past seven years have only one way to go--through the jail system.
© Community Renewal Society 2012
Photo credit: ChrisGoldNY