Pubdate: Wed, 16 Mar 2016
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2016 Sun-Times Media, LLC
Author: Neill Franklin
Note: Neill Franklin, a retired police officer who worked for the 
Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police, is 
executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.


When you create an underground market for anything, you create a 
profit incentive for people to break the law. Once they do, many of 
society's laws cease to apply.

As the rest of the country moves toward more sensible criminal 
justice policies by legalizing marijuana and reducing overly punitive 
sentences, the Chicago City Council seems headed in the other 
direction. The Council is considering anti-tobacco legislation that 
would increases taxes on cigarettes and double fines and impose jail 
sentences for those avoiding taxes by selling loose cigarettes ( loosies).

While the penalties and higher taxes seem like a good idea on the 
surface, they ignore what we should have learned 80 years ago during 
the prohibition of alcohol, which is that harsh penalties increase 
illegal activity and violence, decrease the effectiveness of law 
enforcement and criminalize the marginalized. And higher taxes have 
not been effective in lowering use rates; education, treatment and 
social influence win that award.

It's a simple matter of pricing. Chicago has the highest rate of 
cigarette taxation in the country and a captive market of tens of 
thousands of smokers. Yet nearby communities of Missouri and Indiana 
legally sell cigarettes at tax rates six to seven times lower. It 
doesn't take a genius to see a moneymaking opportunity here. With a 
tax-differential per case ( 60 cartons) of more than $ 3,800 between 
Missouri and Chicago, a van carrying 50 cases could bring in $ 
192,000 for a smuggler.

When you create an underground market for anything, you create a 
profit incentive for people to break the law. Once they do, many of 
society's laws cease to apply. Criminals can't appeal to the police 
for help, so when they're robbed, violence is the means of recourse. 
And the threat of prison is not a deterrent, thereby remaining only a 
threat. So who would take such risks to import cigarettes into the 
city? Primarily two groups: Organized crime and the poor.

The vast majority of people who enter such a trade are just people on 
the fringes, trying to get by however they can and barely doing so. 
If they had more schooling, or there were more job opportunities, 
they'd be plumbers or secretaries or professionals. You can look down 
upon them for doing something illegal, but you might also ask 
yourself what you would do in their situation.

Regardless of what you think about these people, sending them to jail 
helps no one. It's tremendously expensive, it gives that person a 
record that will make them even less likely to be able to gain 
legitimate employment in the future, and it wastes scarce law 
enforcement resources.

As a police officer for 34 years, that part of it is very important 
for me-the fact of how wasteful law-enforcement resources going after 
low-level street cigarette dealers is. Because when you're talking 
about law enforcement resources, you're talking not only about money. 
You're talking about what that police officer isn't doing when she's 
out busting someone selling loosies. She isn't investigating 
homicides, she isn't investigating rapes, and because it's much 
easier to arrest 10 kids off the street than to spend weeks 
investigating sexual assaults, the rapist continues assaulting women.

Adding to this problem is the fact that if you look at the universe 
of people committing crimes and the universe of people getting 
arrested and prosecuted for those crimes, they're two different 
populations. People of color are much more likely than white people 
to enter the criminal justice system even given similar rates of 
offense. Eric Garner, who was choked to death while in New York 
Police Department custody last year, was there for selling loose cigarettes.

The Chicago City Council's ordinance would further exacerbate racial 
disparities in the criminal justice system, criminalize more people 
of color and create more unnecessary opportunities for negative 
police citizen encounters. That's the last thing Chicago needs.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom