Sanity In Chicago


Did the drug war slack off a little last week in Chicago? Was it just too tired to fight? Demoralized by Montel Williams?

I thought Montel's show about medical marijuana, in which he confronted and shamed former deputy drug czar Andrea Barthwell, would be the big news of the week. But while the former czarina stuck to the cruel party line that Montel shouldn't be smoking weed to stop his pain, something else happened.

A major American city proposed marijuana decriminalization, and no one expressed serious opposition. Not even the federal freakin' drug czar himself.

Maybe things will get back to normal next week, and maybe this proposal isn't as good as it seems, but Chicago's leaders want to stop arresting pot smokers for possessing small amounts. Instead, tickets would be issued. Chicago officials insist they are not talking about decriminalization. It's really a way to get tough on marijuana.

OK guys. Whatever you say. Semantics can be important, and the term decriminalization carries varied meanings and connotations that can confound listeners. But if this was 1978, everyone would be using the language of decrim.

Of course, it's not 1978 and the proposal isn't ideal. Among other problems, the fines as discussed are too high, but from a reformer's perspective, it still looks like a step in the right direction.

It all started last Monday when the Chicago Sun-Times released details on a police sergeant's memo suggesting that fines would be more appropriate than arrest. He argued that judges were dismissing cases for the vast majority of suspects arrested with 2.5 grams or less.

An unstated but central question floated beneath language of bureaucracy: Why spend money arresting potheads, when you can make money fining potheads?

It was a relatively rational idea, but the drug war's central function is to aggressively smash down rationality wherever it rears its confusing head. While other counties and cities have similar schemes in place, American prohibitionists go insane and froth at the mouth whenever they discuss Canadian decrim proposals. I assumed that we would hear little more about the subject in Chicago.

The next day, the chief of police said it was an idea worth consideration. Then Mayor Daley said he didn't have a problem with it. In Chicago, that's all that really matters. Both the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune endorsed the idea.

And then two holes within the space time continuum apparently aligned momentarily and we entered some kind of alternate dimension. I'm talking mystical signs of biblical proportions; lambs lying down with lions and that type of thing. John Walters, the federal drug czar, told the Sun-Times he does not have a problem with Chicago's plan to stop arresting marijuana smokers! He didn't endorse it, but he wouldn't criticize it. The federal freakin' drug czar!

The reporter was polite and/or ignorant enough not to ask the federal freakin' drug czar why it's OK for Chicago but not for Canada.

Federal hypocrisy aside, Chicago's fines for pot plan sounds OK, but regulation and a mild tax would be much better. Government shouldn't have to depend on people breaking the law to generate revenue when it could depend on people obeying the law to generate revenue.

Better policies, however, will come around in the future. When Chicago fails to fall apart because marijuana smokers are no longer being arrested, more significant reforms will arrive in the Windy City and elsewhere, particularly if the reforms offer broader revenue streams and decreased costs for local government.

At the very least some obscured truth seems to be ripe for mass recognition across the United States: Using the limited resources of law enforcement to arrest our way toward a pot-free America is a stupid, short-sighted waste. Even the federal freakin' drug czar understands marijuana arrests are a malicious luxury he can no longer afford to demand.

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