Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Marijuana has City Hall buzzing

Posted By on 11.02.11 at 07:00 PM

Joe Moreno
  • Joe Moreno

While a number of aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were discussing the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana Wednesday, First Ward alderman Joe Moreno went a step further, becoming one of the few Chicago city officials to openly argue that the real solution is legalization.

“Legalize it, control it, and tax it,” Moreno says. “Regulate it as a controlled substance. How many people do you know who have overdosed on marijuana? It doesn’t happen. The effects of alcohol are much worse.”

Moreno’s comments came during a City Council meeting buzzing with so much talk about marijuana policy that it was possible to get a pot-debate contact high just from walking through council chambers.

Earlier, 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis introduced a proposed ordinance that would make possession of 10 grams of pot or less punishable with a $200 fine and 10 days of community service, though police could still arrest offenders.

The ordinance cites data Ben Joravsky and I reported on the racial disparities and costs of current policies: blacks account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for pot possession in Chicago. And even though about 90 percent of these cases are tossed out of court, they cost us 84,000 police hours and $78 million a year.

Moreno signed on as a supporter of Solis’s proposal. Though he doesn’t think it’s the ultimate answer, Moreno says it’s a way to start the conversation about reform. “I think we’re being very pragmatic,” he says.

Moreno joins his council colleague Walter Burnett Jr., alderman of the 27th Ward, in arguing that legalization should at least be part of the discussion. Solis says he doesn’t disagree.

“I think I’m being realistic—I think this will add to the debate on legalizing marijuana,” Solis says. “But I’m not ready to take a position on that now myself.”

Solis was also pushing the measure as a means of raising revenues for the city. As an argument in favor of his proposal, Solis circulated data showing how Chicago’s 200,000 low-level pot arrests since 2001 broke down by ward. While 529 arrests were made during that time in the 43rd Ward, centered in Lincoln Park, there were 12,270 in the 28th Ward, in Garfield Park and Austin. (You can see all the figures here.)

In other words, if the law changes how busts are processed but not where they’re made, the new revenue stream will flow primarily out of black neighborhoods.

That concerns 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr., the chairman of the black caucus. But Brookins says pot tickets would still be an improvement over the current policy. "I can't believe how many people are getting arrested," he says.

The proposal could get a hearing as soon as late November or early December.

Not even Mayor Rahm Emanuel could stay away from marijuana Wednesday. Reporters asked him about it during his post-meeting press conference.

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

But he didn't appear to be joking when he said he had been thinking about pot for several weeks.

Emanuel said a cop had recommended he make changes in Chicago’s pot bust policies when the mayor went on a police ride-along over the summer. The mayor had then asked top police brass to look into it, but he isn’t done sifting through it himself—while the potential cost savings sound great, he isn’t sure about the “criminal justice side.”

“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.

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