Pubdate: Tue, 16 Aug 2011
Source: Chicago Reader (IL)
Copyright: 2011 Chicago Reader
Pubdate: Tue, 16 Aug 2011
Author: Mick Dumke


Arguing that current policies don't work, two more public officials
are calling for serious changes in marijuana laws and their

State rep La Shawn K. Ford and Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. told me in
separate conversations that they not only favor decriminalizing
marijuana possession to keep more pot smokers out of jail-as Cook
County Board president Toni Preckwinkle has advocated-but are also
open to discussions about legalizing it.

"We're putting so many people in jail, it costs us money, and it's
just a waste because folks do it anyway," Burnett says.

Ford decried the racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana
laws, citing figures Ben Joravsky and I reported in two recent
investigations (which you can find here and here): African-Americans
account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those
convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level marijuana
possession in Chicago.

"Marijuana is not a gateway to the next hard drug, but the gateway to
prison," says Ford, who represents a district (the Eighth) that
stretches from Chicago's west side into the suburbs.

The pot policy debate has heated up around here in recent weeks. In an
interview with us last month, Preckwinkle called on the Chicago police
to stop "wasting our time" by arresting so many low-level possessors.
This prompted arguments among police brass about the best way to
proceed, though publicly police chief Garry McCarthy has vowed to
continue enforcement. Meanwhile, federal drug enforcement officials
maintain that usage and crime would increase if marijuana were

Chicago police made 47,400 busts for low-level pot possession in 2009
and 2010-accounting for about one of every seven arrests they made in
those years. Thousands of the people arrested ended up in jail,
costing taxpayers $143 per person per day.

Ford says he's going to hold a public meeting on September 29 at the
Oak Park village hall to get input on a number of ideas for retooling
marijuana policies. In January he introduced a bill that would make
possession of up to an ounce of pot a petty offense punishable by a
$500 fine. The bill went nowhere.

Just a year ago, the state rep was reluctant to speak out on the
issue. In the spring of 2010 he joined his colleague John Fritchey,
who's now a county commissioner, in issuing a controversial call for
the national guard to be deployed in high-violence neighborhoods. When
Fritchey told reporters that he also thought marijuana possession
should be decriminalized, Ford was noncommittal. "I think you should
always consider things," he said.

His views began to evolve as he heard stories and read reports about
who was getting busted and how much it costs taxpayers. "If we
approach it in a way where we decriminalize small amounts, it will
save the state lots of money and help direct people to treatment who
need it," Ford says.

But Ford's bill probably wouldn't change things much. People end up in
jail for pot possession largely because they can't come up with the
money to post bond, and the same people are unlikely to be able to
cover a $500 ticket, meaning they'd sit in lockup instead. "That's
another angle I have to figure out, what the best way is to approach
this," Ford says.

He adds that the conversation shouldn't stop there-he thinks
legalization should be on the table as well. "Do you know how much
money we could make off this, and jobs we could create?" he says. "You
talk about something that would help brownfields in urban areas-we
have so many vacant lots."

Ford says he'd like to see some serious studies about the impacts of
legalization on usage rates, crime, and business. "There are a lot of
steps we have to take," he says.

To get started, though, "we just really have to get the opponents and
proponents together and have an argument."

Burnett represents a ward, the 27th, at least as diverse as Ford's
district-it includes the gentrifying near north side and West Loop as
well as depressed parts of the west side where the drug market is the
leading employer. He believes marijuana should be dealt with
differently than hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.

"I would say legalize marijuana because I think marijuana is not
something as harmful to you, it's not a physical addiction," he says.
"Kids do it. A lot of old people do it. I had an uncle who died at 84,
and he liked to listen to jazz and smoke marijuana-you know, he'd been
smoking marijuana since the 1930s."

Burnett notes that marijuana use is already tolerated at certain times
and places-without leading to catastrophe. "At Lollapalooza they were
smoking marijuana all over the place," he says. "I'm telling you, I
got a contact high. It was everywhere."

Tags: marijuana, legalization, decriminalization, Garry McCarthy, Toni
Preckwinkle, La Shawn K. Ford, Walter Burnett Jr., war on drugs
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