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Arguing that current policies don't work, two more public officials are calling for serious changes in marijuana laws and their enforcement.
State rep La Shawn K. Ford and Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. told me in separate conversations that they not only favor decriminalizing marijuana possession to keep more pot smokers out of jail—as Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle has advocated—but are also open to discussions about legalizing it.
“We’re putting so many people in jail, it costs us money, and it’s just a waste because folks do it anyway,” Burnett says.
Ford decried the racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws, citing figures Ben Joravsky and I reported in two recent investigations (which you can find here and here): African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level marijuana possession in Chicago.
“Marijuana is not a gateway to the next hard drug, but the gateway to prison,” says Ford, who represents a district (the Eighth) that stretches from Chicago’s west side into the suburbs.
The pot policy debate has heated up around here in recent weeks. In an interview with us last month, Preckwinkle called on the Chicago police to stop "wasting our time" by arresting so many low-level possessors. This prompted arguments among police brass about the best way to proceed, though publicly police chief Garry McCarthy has vowed to continue enforcement. Meanwhile, federal drug enforcement officials maintain that usage and crime would increase if marijuana were legalized.
Chicago police made 47,400 busts for low-level pot possession in 2009 and 2010—accounting for about one of every seven arrests they made in those years. Thousands of the people arrested ended up in jail, costing taxpayers $143 per person per day.
Ford says he’s going to hold a public meeting on September 29 at the Oak Park village hall to get input on a number of ideas for retooling marijuana policies. In January he introduced a bill that would make possession of up to an ounce of pot a petty offense punishable by a $500 fine. The bill went nowhere.
Just a year ago, the state rep was reluctant to speak out on the issue. In the spring of 2010 he joined his colleague John Fritchey, who’s now a county commissioner, in issuing a controversial call for the national guard to be deployed in high-violence neighborhoods. When Fritchey told reporters that he also thought marijuana possession should be decriminalized, Ford was noncommittal. “I think you should always consider things,” he said.
His views began to evolve as he heard stories and read reports about who was getting busted and how much it costs taxpayers. “If we approach it in a way where we decriminalize small amounts, it will save the state lots of money and help direct people to treatment who need it,” Ford says.
But Ford’s bill probably wouldn't change things much. People end up in jail for pot possession largely because they can’t come up with the money to post bond, and the same people are unlikely to be able to cover a $500 ticket, meaning they'd sit in lockup instead. “That’s another angle I have to figure out, what the best way is to approach this,” Ford says.
He adds that the conversation shouldn’t stop there—he thinks legalization should be on the table as well. “Do you know how much money we could make off this, and jobs we could create?” he says. “You talk about something that would help brownfields in urban areas—we have so many vacant lots.”
Ford says he’d like to see some serious studies about the impacts of legalization on usage rates, crime, and business. “There are a lot of steps we have to take,” he says.
To get started, though, “we just really have to get the opponents and proponents together and have an argument.”
Burnett represents a ward, the 27th, at least as diverse as Ford’s district—it includes the gentrifying near north side and West Loop as well as depressed parts of the west side where the drug market is the leading employer. He believes marijuana should be dealt with differently than hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
“I would say legalize marijuana because I think marijuana is not something as harmful to you, it’s not a physical addiction,” he says. “Kids do it. A lot of old people do it. I had an uncle who died at 84, and he liked to listen to jazz and smoke marijuana—you know, he’d been smoking marijuana since the 1930s.”
Burnett notes that marijuana use is already tolerated at certain times and places—without leading to catastrophe. “At Lollapalooza they were smoking marijuana all over the place,” he says. “I’m telling you, I got a contact high. It was everywhere.”