Pubdate: Sun, 27 Apr 2014
Source: Chicago Reader (IL)
Copyright: 2014 Chicago Reader
Author: Mick Dumke


Legalize it.

At the very least, start taking steps toward legalizing

That's the message that a group of county and state elected officials
plans to deliver at a press conference downtown Monday afternoon.
They'll point to both the costs of enforcing current marijuana laws
and the potential financial benefits of legalizing pot for
recreational use.

It's the latest sign that the politics of pot are shifting at a pace
that was unimaginable even a couple of years ago.

"It is well past time to recognize that the so-called 'war on drugs'
has been a misguided failure with respect to marijuana laws and
policies," Cook County commissioner John Fritchey, who's leading the
effort, said in a written statement. "The Illinois Legislature should
follow the successful lead of other states and start taking meaningful
steps toward a workable framework to allow the responsible sale and
use of cannabis."

The elected officials plan to call for the creation of a state task
force to research potential regulations, project revenues, and propose
legislation for the sale and taxation of legal pot. Experts in law
enforcement, health care, and business would be involved.

The announcement is clearly meant to prod leaders in Springfield. In
February state reps Robyn Gabel of Evanston and Sara Feigenholtz of
Chicago introduced a bill calling for a study of marijuana
legalization. It's been sitting in the house rules committee ever since.

Illinois politicians tend to move at a glacial pace on changing drug
and criminal justice policies, even when they're clearly broken. But
the national debate on marijuana regulation has moved

Colorado state officials caught the attention of cash-strapped states
around the country when they announced total tax revenues of more than
$6 million from the first two months of state-regulated marijuana
sales there.

In an interview with the New Yorker published in January, President
Obama said he believed marijuana was less harmful than alcohol and
indicated his support for legalization in Colorado and Washington as
test cases. "It's important for it to go forward because it's
important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion
of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select
few get punished," he said.

But that's exactly what's happened. A report released last year by the
ACLU found that a racial gap in low-level pot arrests exists
nationwide, "in all regions of the country, in counties large and
small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small
Black populations."

Chicago has one of the largest grass gaps in the country, even after
efforts to address it.

Two-and-a-half years ago Fritchey and a group of aldermen held a press
conference to call for easing marijuana penalties in Chicago and Cook
County. That led to a new city ordinance allowing police to issue
tickets for low-level pot possession instead of making arrests for

In the time since, though, pot has essentially been decriminalized in
some parts of town while in others it's still punishable by arrest and
lockup. While the overall rate of marijuana busts has dropped, police
still make 44 arrests for low-level possession a day, and almost eight
of every ten involve African-Americans. Misdemeanor marijuana
possession is the leading arrest category in Chicago by a long shot,
costing at least 46,000 police hours and $23 million in the city alone
last year.

The ACLU study found that Illinois was spending more than $200 million
annually on low-level pot busts.

Some state legislators have taken notice. At least three bills have
been introduced in the house this year that would ease penalties for
marijuana possession across Illinois, though none has gained traction.

Meanwhile, state regulators are moving slowly and cautiously toward
setting up a medical marijuana program that was authorized to start at
the beginning of this year. Advocates stress that the medical program
is meant to help seriously ill patients, but it's also widely viewed
as a pilot program for legalizing recreational marijuana.

Several Chicago aldermen have also vowed to get the City Council to
look into legalization. "I think there's broad public support for it,"
says First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno.

What's clear is that it's now considered a smart, progressive
political move to call for marijuana reforms, even if they don't
advance. Fifty-eight percent of Americans back legalizing marijuana,
the largest share ever recorded, according to an October Gallup poll.

Officials believe the figure is much higher in the Chicago area.
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MAP posted-by: Matt