Next week Chicago Alderman Daniel Solis plans to introduce an ordinance that would allow police to cite people caught with 10 grams or less of marijuana instead of arresting them. Under state law, possessing 10 grams (about one-third of an ounce) is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Solis' proposal, which is supported by several of his colleagues, would make it a citable offense punishable by a $200 fine and up to 10 hours of community service. He and his allies, who include Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, argue that it will free up police resources to target serious crimes while raising some money for the city. They also note that blacks are much more likely to be busted for marijuana possession than whites (even though survey data indicate they are no more likely to smoke pot) and that, even when the charges are dismissed (as they typically are) an arrest record hurts people's job prospects.
Two years ago Cook County adopted a no-arrest policy for marijuana possession in unincorporated areas patrolled by the county sheriff's department. The Chicago suburbs of Evanston, Aurora, Skokie, Sugar Grove, Yorkville, and Carpentersville likewise treat pot possession as a citable offense. The Chicago Tribune reports that Fritchey "said several states have already decriminalized small amounts of cannabis." A dozen states have eliminated the possibility of jail for such offenses, which is generally what is meant by marijuana "decriminalization" in this country. It is almost certainly what Barack Obama had in mind when, as an Illinois legislator running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he said, "We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws." But the ambiguity of the term, which could refer to anything from lighter penalties for simple possession to full legalization, may help explain why he renounced that position when he was running for president.
Obama is not the only Illinois politician who can't seem to decide where he stands on penalties for marijuana possession. The Chicago Sun-Times notes that former Mayor Richard Daley "embraced the idea of issuing tickets for minor pot violations in 2004, only to ridicule the County Board five years later for voting to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana." Here is what Daley said in 2009:
People say you cannot smoke....They said, "Please don't smoke." Now, everybody's saying, "Let's all smoke marijuana." After a while, you wonder where America is going.
You really do. The Sun-Times says Chicago's current mayor (and Obama's former chief of staff), Rahm Emanuel, "refused to take a position on the issue." It is not a hopeful sign that as a congressman Emanuel positioned himself to the right of the Bush administration on drug policy.