Cook County state's attorney: Time to lay off the pot prosecutions

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Cook County states attorney Anita Alvarez says her office will start dropping charges against people caught with less than an ounce of pot.
  • Scott Olson / Getty Images
  • Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez says her office will start dropping charges against people caught with less than an ounce of pot.
Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez says she's not encouraging anyone to toke up.

But she also doesn't want to waste any precious green—that is, money—to target people caught with small amounts of marijuana. Plus, she can't afford to be left out as the politics of pot blow past her less than a year before she faces a potential reelection fight.

And so it was that the county's top law enforcement official announced Monday that her office will stop prosecuting people picked up with an ounce or less of cannabis.

"I have come to the conclusion that what we're currently doing in Cook County to handle drug cases is not working," Alvarez said.

In 2014 her office prosecuted nearly than 15,000 misdemeanor cannabis possession cases, according to the court clerk's office. About 2,000 cases ended in convictions, while the rest were dropped or dismissed. The cases cost taxpayers an average of $2,500 apiece, or more than $37 million altogether, with no visible impact on drug use or sales.

Under the new policies—effective immediately—charges will be dropped for misdemeanor pot possessors unless they've been involved in a violent crime. Those caught three or more times will be given the option of undergoing drug counseling instead of entering the court system.

In addition, Alvarez said that her office will stop prosecuting thousands of people picked up with small amounts of hard drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Possessing even trace amounts of these substances is a felony under state law, but the state's attorney's office will now offer nonviolent offenders the chance to go through drug treatment rather than face prison time.

In 2014 county prosecutors opened nearly 9,790 of these cases, according to the state's attorney's office. That cost taxpayers another $24 million though many of the cases were thrown out anyway.

The announcement is the latest sign of the public's growing weariness with old-school cannabis policies and the war on drugs generally. Simply put, it's no longer wise for an elected official to call for locking up drug users.

That's a major change from the tough-on-crime politics of the last several decades, as Alvarez herself illustrates.

She built a career as a prosecutor committed to locking up bad guys. Even three years ago, as she was coasting to reelection with little opposition, Alvarez declared that she would continue prosecuting people caught with small amounts of cannabis—even after evidence showed that the enforcement of possession laws was expensive, inconsistent, and racially skewed.

"I think marijuana can be a gateway drug," she said at the time.

The notion that smoking reefer leads to hard drug use had been debunked by a number of scientific studies, but Alvarez stuck to it. Since then she's repeatedly said it was her job to enforce the law, not rewrite it, even when the county jail and state prison system swelled past capacity.

Meanwhile, the world was rotating around her.

In 2012, pressured to respond to the city's epidemic of gun violence, Chicago police began issuing tickets to some pot possessors rather than arresting them on criminal charges. County and state legislators called for even broader measures, including proposals to legalize it.

Last summer, as he tacked left before his own reelection battle, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed softening state drug laws as a way to shift resources to fighting violent crime.

At the same time, word began circulating that several critics of Alvarez were thinking about challenging her in the 2016 elections, including Kim Foxx, the chief of staff to Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle; and John Fritchey, a county commissioner who, like Preckwinkle, has called for drug reforms for years.

Fritchey welcomed the announcement Monday while also suggesting that Alvarez was late to the game.

"I appreciate that State's Attorney Alvarez is finally moving in the right direction by reforming low-level drug possession laws that have not made practical or economic sense for decades," he said. But "during her tenure in office, tens of thousands of Cook County residents, disproportionately minorities, have been victim to our outdated drug laws, subjecting them to unnecessary arrest records while costing county taxpayers countless millions of dollars for charges that were ultimately dismissed."

Fritchey says he's mulling a challenge to Alvarez next year and renewed his call for legalizing marijuana. "I've been arguing for a dramatic change in our drug policies since people told me it was political suicide to do so."

Alvarez denied that her new approach is designed to improve her reelection prospects. "Absolutely not," she said. "I'm ready for whoever wants to take me on." She said she and her staff had been working on the new policies for a year and a half.

She's also not ready to see Illinois go the way of Colorado and Washington. "Drugs are bad and I'm not pushing any kind of drug use or legalization of anything," she said. "This is not being soft on crime."

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