Pot topic

Chicago's City Council looks at the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana

November 17, 2011|By Georgia Garvey, RedEye

You've heard the stoner arguments for legalizing pot: "Weed is 100 percent natural, dude. It's from the earth. Thomas Jefferson grew it, man. Thomas. Jefferson."

But lately the case for legalization and decriminalization of possession comes from entirely different camps, and they're using arguments with more finesse, research and economic impact than those tossed out at a party in your friend's smoke-filled basement. Witness the City Council, which is looking at reduced penalties for possession of amounts less than 10 grams.

Ald. Danny Solis (25th), who this month introduced the city proposal, lists things like discriminatory arrest practices, harsh penalties and a maxed-out city budget as some of the reasons he'd like to see Chicago's marijuana laws reassessed. And though not everyone's on the "pot is harmless" train, more cities are examining whether jailing people—as Chicago currently does—for small amounts is the way to go.

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has said police officers might do better ticketing rather than arresting in small-time pot busts. The Cook County board already went the ticketing route for small amounts of marijuana in unincorporated areas; suburbs like Evanston have done the same. Add to that places including Connecticut and Philadelphia that have eased up, as well as states like Oregon and California—which legalized medical marijuana—and the pro-marijuana landscape looks increasingly green.

While opponents say there are a slew of negative consequences from reducing pot penalties, the wheels may already be in motion.

"What you're beginning to see is a more rational approach to marijuana laws and a less emotional approach," said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "You're seeing the same kind of changes that we saw at the end of alcohol prohibition."

Stroup points to places across the country tackling the topic. He said 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Organizations including the California Medical Association have said legalization might be better than inconsistent enforcement.

Today, those arrested in Chicago for pot possession are looking at misdemeanor charges that could lead to six months in jail and a fine of $1,500. The Chicago proposal—which Solis stresses is in the early phases—would allow cops to write a $200 ticket for possession of amounts less than 10 grams, with punishments increasing for repeat offenders.

Turning pot possession from a jailable offense to a slap on the wrist, though, bothers anti-drug activists.

"There are a couple of prominent [pro-marijuana] organizations … preying on our tough economic times," said Amy Ronshausen, manager of congressional and legislative affairs for the Drug-Free America Foundation. She said the negative consequences of alcohol use can predict what would happen should marijuana use dramatically increase or be legalized. "The money that we get [from taxing alcohol] doesn't compare to the societal costs. … How can we say that our experience with marijuana would be any different?"

Mayor Emanuel isn't completely on board, either. He recently told reporters other cities that have made similar moves "have also created their own set of problems," though he has said he's willing to look at evidence on all sides.

People who like the city plan, though, said the economy and budget pressures mean it's the perfect time to question whether it makes financial sense to jail people arrested with small amounts of marijuana.

Solis offers some figures, including that 23,000 small-time pot possession arrests are made each year, of which "about 90 percent get thrown out of court." With what he estimated as more than 83,000 hours of police time being spent on the arrests, the alderman said the city can find better ways to use its law enforcement dollars.

"Police officers are taken away from patrolling neighborhoods in our city," he said, adding that police overtime for court appearances makes the financial toll even worse.

On top of that is data showing black people are arrested for marijuana possession in much higher numbers than white people, which Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) brought up to the Tribune recently. At events like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, where attendants are mostly white, Burnett said, he thought he got a "contact high" from all the weed-smoking going on. The Reader reported in July that the ratio of black arrests to white arrests for marijuana possession in Chicago is 15 to 1.

The move toward marijuana decriminalization and legalization hasn't been smooth everywhere. In California, where medical marijuana is legal, some have said "doctor's note" requirements for a prescription card have led to laughably weak enforcement, for example.

More dangerous, anti-drug advocates believe, is the way children and teenagers might respond to decriminalization measures.

"You're kind of normalizing the drug use," Ronshausen said. "When perception of harm decreases, youth use increases."

As the city council debates the proposal, many of these issues in Chicago remain to be hashed out. How much a fine might be, whether cops would continue to have the option of arresting someone with marijuana or how a fine might be reflected on someone's criminal record are still up for debate.

ggarvey@tribune.com | @gcgarvey

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