Sunday, June 24, 2012


With the mayor's support, Chicago may enact a city ordinance allowing police to charge people who possess small amounts of marijuana with a municipal offense, the penalty for which would be a fine. Currently, the only option police have is to charge a person for violating the state law, which is punishable by imprisonment. The mayor says his motivation is to cut costs. Under the current law, if the police charge someone with possession, they usually arrest that person. This requires the police to spend a lot of time transporting accused people to the police station and processing them as accused criminals. Under the new law, the police would simply write a ticket and let accused people go on their way, the same as if they had gotten traffic tickets.

What the mayor isn't talking about is the fact that under the current law, the police don't have to arrest people and take them into custody in order to charge them with possession. The police could simply summon the accused to appear in court, which is what is done every day for lots of offenses.

The mayor also isn't talking about the costs that the city will still have to pay to enforce the new law. It will still have to inventory and store the purported marijuana, send it to a lab for testing so they can prove it really is marijuana, and give accused people trials. Police will still have to show up for the trials. The city will also have to try to collect the fines it imposes on people who are found guilty. This last item is not insignificant. With a traffic ticket, the fine can be collected by threatening to suspend a person's driver's license. What are you going to do to someone who isn't driving when they are found to be in possession of marijuana and may not even have a license? Impound their matches?

The mayor also isn't talking about the fact that if the new law is passed, the police will have discretion to decide whether to prosecute someone under the new city law or the state law. This gives the police just one more opportunity to act arbitrarily, discriminate against and harass certain people, and solicit bribes. These are all things the police are regularly accused of doing in connection with drug arrests.

Why not just tell the police not to charge anyone with possession of small amounts of marijuana? Why not repeal the state law that bans possession? One reason is that the police want to have an excuse to stop, frisk, hassle, and arrest people, and the drug laws provide that opportunity. It is pretty easy to plant a small amount of marijuana on someone, and it's pretty hard for accused people to prove their innocence if the cops claim they found the weed on them. Judges pretty much always side with the cops.

The truth is that cops gave up a long time ago on the idea that enforcing marijuana laws helps people avoid being harmed by marijuana. They know that marijuana isn't nearly as harmful as alcohol and doesn't lead to using other drugs. Most cops couldn't care less if people smoke marijuana. A lot of cops know from personal experience how benign marijuana is.

But the mayor, aldermen, and state and federal legislators just won't admit that there is no legitimate reason to keep marijuana illegal and there are lots of good reasons to make it legal. Just as prohibition funneled huge amounts of money into organized crime, the prohibition of marijuana not only funds crime in this country, it also plays a major role in undermining governments in the countries which supply us with marijuana.

Instead of changing the drug laws to reflect what has been learned through decades of research and experience, our timid lawmakers make tiny changes in the law, like reducing the penalties for possession and sanctioning marijuana for medicinal use. Isn't that something – our drug laws are written and enforced by people who can't cope with reality.

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