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The politics of pot

Are our politicians too paranoid to decriminalize marijuana?

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On the morning of October 27, after several weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Cook County commissioner John Fritchey stepped before reporters to make a demand that would have been unthinkable just a short time earlier: Chicago police should stop arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

As recently as the summer, many elected officials viewed marijuana decriminalization as a daring if not suicidal political move—and that's among the pols who think it's a good idea. But this fall, Fritchey coaxed a rainbow coalition of three aldermen—one black, one white, one Hispanic—to stand at his side as he called on city officials to implement a smarter, more lenient pot policy.

Just as Fritchey was about to start, into the room hustled Alderman Danny Solis—one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's closest City Council allies.

"I had to do a double take when I saw Danny walk into the room," recalls Fritchey. "I was pleasantly surprised."

Fritchey hadn't invited Solis to the press conference. He hadn't talked to him about the issue. He had no idea that Solis even knew he was holding his press conference.

But Solis effectively stole the show. As one of Solis's aides handed out a press release that made no mention of Fritchey or the event he'd organized, the alderman promised to introduce an ordinance that would make low-level pot possession punishable with a fine and community service.

Within the hour, the story had gone international. As the headline on one wire report put it: "Chicago may decriminalize marijuana."

To political insiders, though, another story was developing: Mayor Emanuel had sent Solis to take control—bogart, if you will—not just Fritchey's press conference but the whole discussion of marijuana policy.

It was the clearest sign yet that the push to change pot policy had gone mainstream, even if it's far from certain where it's headed or who will end up benefiting.

Welcome to the next chapter in our ongoing series on the absurdity of marijuana laws.

As we reported back in July, marijuana is believed to be used at similar rates across racial groups, yet African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession in Chicago.

These arrests burden local courts, resulting in punishments meted out so capriciously that armed dealers are sometimes let off with little more than a slap on the wrist while casual users are locked up for possessing a dime bag.

And though about 90 percent of these arrests are effectively thrown out in court, they cost county taxpayers at least $78 million and 84,000 police hours a year.

Polls show overwhelming support for amending the laws. In fact, 50 percent of Americans—the largest portion ever recorded—now favor legalizing marijuana, according to an October Gallup poll. But elected officials have yet to catch up.

Even those politicians who privately wisecrack about all the weed they smoked in their younger days are usually too timid to take on decades-old preconceptions about marijuana.

In other words, the politicians who have the power to enact new rules have been too wimpy to use it, and those who want to see changes don't have the clout. The result is a political limbo where reefer madness still rules.

Lawmakers in Springfield haven't wanted to touch anything with even the slightest whiff of marijuana. On the few occasions that reformers have pushed for changes, they've been blocked at every turn by a band of suburban and downstate legislators who argue that marijuana is a dangerous drug that leads to narcotics addiction and violent crime.

In 2001, downstate legislators, looking for an economic shot in the arm, introduced a bill to allow University of Illinois researchers to study potential uses of industrial hemp, a plant related to but not the same as the stuff people smoke.

A couple versions of the bill eventually passed both chambers of the General Assembly, but supporters couldn't muster enough votes to override vetoes by Governor George Ryan, who dismissed the legislation as aiding "groups seeking to remove existing criminal penalties for cannabis/marijuana possession and use."

Lawmakers have been just as hesitant about proposals to allow highly regulated access to small amounts of marijuana for the seriously ill.

“The drug laws themselves may have more of an adverse impact on society than the drugs they seek to regulate.” —Cook County commissioner John Fritchey

Medical marijuana has technically been allowed in Illinois since 1978, but before issuing a prescription doctors are required to get approval from the Department of Human Services, which in turn needs approval from the state police. Because neither department has set up a policy or a protocol for doing this, medical marijuana effectively remains prohibited.

For the last three years state rep Lou Lang has tried to get new regulations in place that would no longer require police approval. Ironically, the state police are neutral on Lang's legislation, but the bill continues to come up short as legislators express concern about sanctioning the use of an illegal drug.

"I don't have an opinion on the pluses or minuses of marijuana," says Lang, who stresses that he has never smoked pot himself. "I have an opinion on a product that my doctor says will help some people."

The prospects for Lang's bill seemed to brighten this spring when house GOP leader Tom Cross of suburban Oswego lent it his backing after hearing from constituents fighting fatal illnesses.

"I had a situation with some friends, who didn't even tell me about it at first, who ended up getting some marijuana for their mother, who was going through some health challenges," Cross said in an interview at the time. "The idea of them harming their professional careers for this really bothered me. They shouldn't have to take that risk."

In consultation with Cross, Lang rewrote the bill, adding even stricter regulations of marijuana dispensaries and limiting access to patients suffering from "debilitating medical conditions" such as cancer, lupus, and AIDS. Analysts said it would be the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country.

Opening debate on the bill on May 5, Lang passionately urged his colleagues to leave politics aside and vote with their conscience. "This is not about drugs. It's not about marijuana. It's about health care," he said.

But conservative opponents wouldn't bend. "The great state of Montana, Big Sky country, is starting to refer to itself as 'big high country' because they cannot control the runaway problem with medical marijuana," said Representative Jim Sacia, a Republican from Freeport. "This bill is an absolute abomination."

The bill was defeated 61-53, with four reps voting present. Months later, Lang is still upset that the issue got so politicized. "People wouldn't vote for it because they're worried about the next election," he says.

Earlier this year, he says, supporters conducted a statewide poll on public views of medical marijuana. A majority of those polled were in favor of the bill. In fact, Lang says, the lowest support it received in any of the state's 118 house districts was 55 percent.

Lang says he shared the results with legislators who voted no. "They said, 'None of the 55 percent will vote for me because of this bill—but lots of the 45 percent will vote against me for it,'" Lang says. "And therein lies the problem."

He's also frustrated with party leaders for not doing enough leading. "Tom Cross kept his word and voted for the bill," Lang says, "but he didn't drag anyone over the finish line with him."

Before the vote last spring, Cross said he was going to let other Republicans "make decisions on their own." When we called last week, he declined to comment.

If something as simple as providing relief to cancer patients is that politically fraught, imagine the political complexity of going easier on recreational drug users.

Earlier this year Rep­resentative La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, introduced a bill that would make possession of up to an ounce of pot punishable with a fine rather than an arrest. Ford says the legislation is important to help make policy consistent across local jurisdictions. In March the bill was buried in the house rules committee.

"It's probably an idea whose time is not quite here yet," says Steve Brown, longtime spokesman for house speaker Michael Madigan. "We've been in an environment for 30 years where you're supposed to be tough on crime. It's very hard, once something becomes a crime, to roll it back."

Even as city officials are discussing changes to marijuana policies, sentiments are much different outside Chicago, where law enforcement talks about cracking down on pot users while actually making far fewer busts.

The mayor’s press office insists Emanuel wasn’t behind Solis’s proposal, but several veteran aldermen and county officials say Emanuel feared Fritchey and Preckwinkle were ahead of him on marijuana policy.

There are about 23,000 marijuana possession arrests annually in Chicago alone, and roughly 4,000 more in suburban Cook County. But in DuPage, the next most populous county in Illinois, there are only about 2,400 a year. That means DuPage residents are arrested for pot at half the rate of people in Cook County.

DuPage County state's attorney Robert Berlin says he has the resources to keep prosecuting marijuana possession cases, and no plans to do anything different.

"If you just ticket it, and it's a monetary fine, you're not addressing the root of the actual crime itself," Berlin says. "If we have the opportunity to use the criminal justice system to correct a behavior such as marijuana possession before these people turn to harder drugs, I think it's worth the cost."

In Chicago and Cook County, things are a little more complicated. Off the record, Chicago pols have long abandoned the hard-ass lock-'em-up attitude toward marijuana, conceding privately that it's a waste of resources.

And every so often a city official comes out and says what just about everyone else is thinking. In 1994, William Beavers, a former cop who was then alderman of the Seventh Ward, proposed making possession of up to a tenth of an ounce of marijuana a civil infraction punishable with a $250 ticket. Beavers said he wanted to help unclog the court system. Critics said kids would think it's OK to use drugs. The proposal went nowhere.

Ten years later, Mayor Richard M. Daley had a brief bout of common sense and candor on the issue, saying it might be better to switch from arrests to fines for pot possession. "Why do we arrest the individual, seize the marijuana, [go] to court and they're all thrown out?" he said. "It costs you a lot of money for police officers to go to court."

But by 2009 Daley had reversed course. "People say you can't smoke. And now everyone's saying, 'Let's all smoke marijuana.' I mean, after a while you wonder where America's going." The number of arrests for marijuana possession subsequently climbed in Chicago.

The far more common response from pols is silence, even from those who think the current policies are broken. The conventional wisdom is that legalization, decriminalization, or any other meaningful change is such a long shot that it's not worth sticking your neck out for it.

But some momentum for change arrived in June, after county board president Toni Preckwinkle declared that the war on drugs had failed. While criticizing the racial disparities in drug arrests and incarcerations, Preckwinkle made a direct appeal to taxpayers' pocketbooks, noting it costs $143 a day to lock someone up at the county jail.

"If you have no compassion for the people in the criminal justice system or their families or the communities from which they come, and all you care about is the money, I'll take you as an ally any day," she said in an interview.

Many Chicagoans share her sentiments. Of the dozens of budget-balancing ideas submitted to Mayor Emanuel by the public this summer, "legalize and tax marijuana" was the third-most popular, behind cutting aldermen's pay and banning elected officials from hiring relatives.

Then Fritchey, a former state lawmaker in his first term on the county board, decided to pick up the issue in October.

"During my time in the legislature, as one of the chief sponsors of the medical cannabis bill, it became clear to me that the opposition to any type of marijuana law was based more on fear and politics than common sense," he says.

As the county has struggled to balance its books this year, Fritchey says he became even more attuned to what's wrong with marijuana prosecution. "When you put it in terms of money that can't be spent on health care or public safety, then you realize the toll that antiquated drugs laws have on society," he says. "The drug laws themselves may have more of an adverse impact on society than the drugs they seek to regulate."

Fritchey decided to call for a marijuana ticketing policy with the backup of three aldermen who were carefully chosen to send the message that the issue has broad support. Richard Mell, Walter Burnett Jr., and Ariel Reboyras—a white, an African-American, and a Latino—lend the cause some diversity. They're also go-along-to-get-along types in a compliant City Council. None would be mistaken for a critic of the mayor.

That's when Solis showed up at Fritchey's press conference and announced his own ticketing proposal. "I don't expect it will be passed immediately," Solis said. "But at least we can get the dialogue going."

A reporter asked if Mayor Emanuel was aware of the proposal. "He's heard about it," Solis said. "We've talked with his staff. I think they—they think it makes sense."

If that turn of events was unexpected, Fritchey was "even more surprised" to discover Solis's next move, on November 2—less than a week after his ticketing announcement.

At about 9:30 that morning, Fritchey happened to be walking past City Council chambers when he came upon Solis and a number of aldermen holding another press conference. Fritchey was thrown when he realized it was about the marijuana reforms he'd called for—though no one had told him about this event.

The aldermen waved him over to help answer questions.

Solis was busy talking about his proposed ordinance, which he said he would formally introduce to the council later that morning, with 27 aldermen signing on in support.

"The real tragedy of this is that most of these arrests are being made are in poor, African-American, Hispanic communities where high crime rates are going on and police are being taken out of the field," Solis said. He quickly added that the tickets would "net the city some revenue."

Solis said he'd been working on the ordinance for months with a number of aldermen, including Howard Brookins Jr., chairman of the council's black caucus.

But when we spoke with Brookins later, he offered a different account.

Instead, Brookins says that after Preckwinkle called for changes, he started working on a plan to issue tickets for low-level pot possession. But Mayor Emanuel's City Council staff asked him to hold off because they were working on something themselves.

The next Brookins heard about it was shortly before Solis crashed Fritchey's presser. According to Brookins, Solis called and asked him to support his decriminalization proposal. "I'd wanted to do something for a while, so I said yeah."

Solis says he wasn't sent over to Fritchey's function by the mayor's office. "I went on my own—I found out about it from Dick Mell."

He says he jumped on the issue after learning about the racial disparities and costs of current policies from stories in the Reader. "This is about the use of police resources," he says.

City and county officials are reluctant to speak openly about what's going on for fear of upsetting Mayor Emanuel. But some of them have told us that Solis isn't the type to go out on his own. In fact, Solis hasn't defied a mayor since 2006, when he voted to require big-box stores to raise their wages and benefits—and then flip-flopped a few weeks later when he voted to uphold Daley's veto.

The mayor's press office insists Emanuel wasn't behind Solis's proposal, but several veteran aldermen and county officials say Mayor Emanuel feared that Fritchey and Preckwinkle were getting ahead of him on marijuana policy. While Emanuel doesn't want to be seen on the sidelines, he also doesn't want to be caught up in an issue that won't play well with conservative voters downstate or across state lines—should he ever run for another office.

Solis says he'll hold hearings on the matter, with experts coming in to testify, sometime in the coming months. Nothing has been scheduled yet.

Publicly, Emanuel has only committed to being noncommittal about changing marijuana policy. After months of silence, the mayor briefly weighed in on marijuana at a press conference after the November 2 council meeting.

"I'm banning it for all reporters," the mayor said. He appeared to be joking. The reporters in the room laughed.

The mayor said he was considering policy changes but had concerns about decriminalization. "Other cities that have done this have then had to go back and do corrections because it's created its own set of problems," Emanuel said.

A reporter asked him what sort of problems he was talking about. The mayor declined to detail them.

"I'm not going to get into hypotheticals," he said.

Translation: marijuana policy reform is on hold until the mayor decides what to do with it.

Mark Bergen contributed research to this story.

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