Pubdate: Sat, 25 Jul 2009
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2009 Chicago Tribune Company
Bookmark: (Opinion)


Cook County Board President Todd Stroger was surprised this week when
an ordinance that would treat marijuana possession much like a traffic
offense landed on his desk.

Sheriff Tom Dart -- who you'd think would have been consulted on this
one -- was taken by surprise, too.

The measure would give Dart's officers discretion to issue a $200
ticket instead of making a misdemeanor arrest in cases where the
suspect was carrying less than 10 grams of marijuana.

Commissioner Earlean Collins, who was distressed that her grandson was
busted over "half a joint," introduced the ordinance. Her fellow
commissioners obligingly passed it. Stroger, who initially said he
"didn't think it's such a great idea," now says he won't veto it.
We're not sure who explained to him why it's a good idea after all,
but a sheriff's spokesman said Dart's phone did not ring.

Cook County will be far from the first place to decriminalize small
amounts of pot. Similar laws began popping up in the '70s, and close
to one in three Americans now lives in a jurisdiction where officers
are allowed to make similar calls.

Whether this reflects growing acceptance of marijuana use or a more
pragmatic concern for the cost of enforcement, or both, is subject to
interpretation. Collins says she was moved not only by her grandson's
"mistake" but by the fact that cases like his are clogging the jails.

Roughly 9 of every 10 marijuana arrests nationwide are for possession
only, and the vast majority of them result in plea bargains or
dismissals, calling into question the cost-effectiveness of arresting,
jailing and prosecuting small-time users. Governments that have
decriminalized such cases report little to no increase in marijuana
use -- and significant savings in enforcement. We see the sense in

Lately, though, the liberalization of marijuana laws is being driven
by pot's potential as a revenue source. Prosecuting people for
possession costs money; fining them brings in cash. In California,
where it's legal (and exceedingly easy) to purchase marijuana for
"medicinal" purposes, lawmakers are considering whether to tax pot
like alcohol or tobacco.

The dispensaries that sell marijuana by prescription already pay
business and sales taxes, and this week Oakland residents voted to
enact the nation's first "cannabis business tax" on those stores. The
state's Board of Equalization recently projected that a proposed
statewide tax of $50 per ounce would raise $1.4 billion a year. When
you're looking at a state budget deficit of more than $26 billion,
that's like, wow, man.

We're grateful that Illinois leaders haven't smoked enough to
fantasize about marijuana as a budget booster. It's an illegal drug,

Though there are good arguments in favor of relaxing penalties for
casual users, the Collins ordinance poses problems.

Sheriff's deputies will have the option to write tickets instead of
making arrests, but only in the unincorporated areas of the county.
They and other police departments will have no such discretion in the
cities and villages. Dart's officers made just 173 misdemeanor pot
arrests last year and 150 the year before, and not all of them were in
unincorporated areas.

So you're thinking, pot parties will flourish in the forest preserves?
Some areas of the forest preserves are unincorporated -- but some fall
within municipal boundaries. Then again, the forest preserves are
patrolled by a separate police force and may not fall under this
ordinance at all.

If you think this complicates matters for the officers, imagine the
confusion for poor Joe Stoner, never quite sure if it's safe to break
out the weed.

The argument that the jails are overrun by youthful offenders with a
roach or two in their pocket doesn't really wash, either. Most people
arrested for misdemeanor possession are released after posting $100.

So let's be clear. This ordinance will have little impact, beyond
giving everyone involved a headache. That's what happens when you do
an end run around the sheriff to pass a law inspired by the
misadventures of someone's grandson.

This ordinance deserved a sober public debate. It didn't get one.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake