Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley is advocating the decriminalization of marijuana possession, proposing to make the offense similar to an ordinance violation rather than a criminal action, with violators subject to fees and fines instead of jail time.
“If 99 percent of the (marijuana) cases are thrown out (of court), and we have police officers going to court to testify in the cases, why?” the mayor asked reporters October 3 when explaining why he wants marijuana possession to be decriminalized. “It costs a lot of money for police officers to go to court.”
Nearly All Cases Are Dismissed
A recent police report appeared to support the mayor’s argument.
According to an October 4 report in TheState.com, a South Carolina online newspaper, “(Chicago Police) Sgt. Thomas Donegan determined that nearly 7,000 local cases involving 2.5 grams of pot or less were filed last year (2003) in Chicago. About 94 percent were dismissed.
“While officers are doing everything to keep the streets safe, the offender gets arrested and is walking the streets in just a few hours,” Donegan wrote in his report. “To me, this is a slap in the face to the officers.”
Donegan concluded that a system of fees and fines could have collected more than $5 million for Chicago in 2003.
Columnists Respond Positively
The Cato Institute in Washington, DC said in its online Daily Dispatch for October 4, “Mayor Richard Daley, a former prosecutor, runs the nation’s third-largest city with a pragmatic, law-and-order style. So when he starts complaining about the colossal waste of time and money involved in prosecuting small-time marijuana cases, people take notice …” Cato has long been an advocate of decriminalization of certain drugs.
In “Forget the War on Drugs Already,” published in January 2004 by Cato, Senior Fellow Doug Bandow wrote, “Why government tosses pot smokers in jail … has never been obvious. There is good reason for people to abstain … there is no good reason to imprison them if people do not.
“Last year (2003) 19.5 million Americans used drugs,” Bandow noted. “Some 14.6 million people smoked marijuana, despite the law; assorted police stings, operations, and campaigns; hundreds of arrests; and overflowing prisons.”
Bandow concluded, “We should treat drug use as a medical, moral, and spiritual issue–not a criminal one.”
Rachael Campbell of the Wisconsin-based Journal Times agrees with Daley and Cato. In an October 5 online story, Campbell said of Daley’s proposal, “Personally, I think it’s a great idea, and one the rest of the nation would be wise to adopt. Jail time for pot is clearly an ineffective deterrent.”
Dissenting Voices Raised
But Jeff Wilford of the Journal Times took the opposite view in his October 4 story.
“Marijuana is considered by many to be a gateway drug, meaning marijuana use can lead to the use of more dangerous drugs,” Wilford wrote. “Some argue that watering down marijuana laws would send the wrong message.”
Wilford quoted a letter, published in the Chicago Tribune, written by Kevin J. Hacker, a Republican committeeman in Chicago’s 36th Ward: “The message they are going to receive is that smoking marijuana isn’t a serious offense and is equivalent to rolling through a stop sign.”
California, Colorado, Oregon Set Pace
Other municipalities, and even states, have begun to implement the type of approach Daley is advocating for Chicago. Seattle, for example, enforces a citizen-passed initiative requiring law enforcement officials to make personal-use marijuana cases their lowest priority. In California and Oregon, possession of a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $100 to $500. In Colorado, marijuana possession doesn’t even rise to a misdemeanor; it’s a petty offense with a maximum fine of $100.
No date has been set for further discussion of the issue by the Chicago City Council.
John W. Skorburg ([email protected]) is associate editor of Budget & Tax News and a visiting lecturer at the University of Illinois-Chicago.