The Chicago City Council's Committee on Public Safety has approved a proposal by Mayorto essentially decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The proposal, which is expected to be approved by the full Council, will allow city police to issue “pot tickets” for up to 15 grams of the weed. As it stands now, possession of less than 15 grams is a misdemeanor which involves being arrested, jailed and then released after several hours or a couple of days at most. And judges currently throw out more than 90 percent of these cases.
Offenders will now be issued a ticket which requires them to appear before a Hearing Officer who is empowered to assess fines from $250 to $500 and who can also mandate community service and/or drug education. As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, the reason behind this change in policy has little or nothing to do with recognition of marijuana's relatively harmless physical (or mental) effects, nor its non-addictive characteristics. Its beneficial medical uses were barely mentioned in the debate over this change in direction. Although a number of black aldermen support the measure because of the current laws' disproportionate and ruinous effects on Chicago's black communities, both the mayor and the city's superintendent of poliice did not cite those dreary statistics as a cause for the change, either.
As one might suspect given the name of the committee which considered this measure, “Public Safety,” this change is an attempt by the city to come to grips with a nearly out of control crime situation. Specifically, there has been a recent 35 percent spike in gang-related homicides driven by “turf wars” over marijuana and crack cocaine distribution and street sales. Open-air drug markets proliferate on every corner in some neighborhoods. "Protection" of and monopolies over these markets are secured through open violence and intimidation among and between rival gangbangers.
Thus, the dramatic change in approach to marijuana busts and punishment is intended to free up police from the tedious, distracting, and time-consuming tasks of chasing, arresting and booking possessors of minor amounts of pot – a process which takes at least four hours. The idea is to keep those police officers on the street fighting “real” crime. Under the current system, for those cases which do make it before a judge – only to be dismissed – officers are again pulled off the streets to attend court and are paid overtime for doing so.
The mayor's approach here just makes common sense. However, it does not go far enough; it should be expanded and extended to include most, if not all, illegal drugs. If this proposal works for marijuana, then what's stopping the city, the state, and the feds from applying it to all "illegal" drugs? By removing the profit motive from the process, the most salient and troubling “issues” and problems associated with illegal production (including foreign drug "cartels"), distribution, sales, and use will significantly diminish, if not disappear altogether. That is, on the day that drugs are produced, sold, regulated and taxed in the same manner as alcohol and cigarettes, that is the day we can declare "victory" in the so-called 40-year "War on Drugs."
Unfortunately, the “drug education” component in the Mayor's plan is weak. The committee has agreed that such education will be funded by the fines collected from offenders. How will the fines be collected? Who will administer those funds? What form of "drug education" will be employed -- 12-Steps? "Rational Recovery?" Will there be in- or out-patient services and facilities (or both) available for "addicts?" None of these questions have been answered, and there are many others which will need to be addressed. Thus, at this point, the committee's and the mayor's drug education component may be unrealistic and unwieldly; but they get credit for at least contemplating some form of "rehabilitation." (We'll save the question of the need to be rehabilitated from effects of the use of marijuana for another day).
Also, it must be noted that open or public use of marijuana is still an arrestable, prosecutable offense. Further, people under 17, as well as anyone unable to produce valid identification (who possesses less than 15 grams) will be treated in the traditional manner: arrest, jail and court.
Although both state and federal laws against marijuana possession remain in full force and effect, the city of Chicago is unique in the sense that it operates under a constitutionally (Illinois) granted form of “Home Rule.” That is, at least in terms of state law, Chicago may operate “independently” – specifically and especially in matters of “public safety.”
As to federal law, President Obama's Justice Department has recently come down hard on medical marijuana dispensaries on the west coast. This posture represents yet another broken campaign promise of President Obama. Indeed, a significant number of youth (poor, working class, college students) rallied to his candidacy last time around, in part, due to his very specific statements in favor of if not legalization, at least decriminalization, of marijuana possession and use. He has not only broken those promises, but actually reinforced, strengthened and promoted even more punitive measures in dealing with the drug. It goes without saying, then, that he will not enjoy as enthusiastic support among the youth this time. He actions have not matched his words on this issue, and he has, therefore, disillusioned far too many to expect them to extend their trust in him again.
Finally, it will be most interesting to see President Obama's response to his former chief of staff's move to loosen the stranglehold that the city has had on marijuana in the past. My guess is that because it is Rham and Chicago, Obama will look the other way.