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The politics of pot

Are our politicians too paranoid to decriminalize marijuana?

by and


Page 4 of 5

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.

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