Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cook County state's attorney pans marijuana decriminalization

Posted By on 02.29.12 at 09:00 AM

Anita Alvarez
  • Anita Alvarez

Elected officials in other places are talking openly about pot.

Last week Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn called for legalizing marijuana, saying prohibition finances a violent criminal trade and “fuels a biased incarceration policy.” Chicago also has a racially disparate enforcement policy—the grass gap—but in Washington voters will get to weigh in on the matter this fall, when statewide ballots will include an initiative legalizing possession of an ounce of pot for recreational use. It’s sponsored by the former U.S. attorney in Seattle. A similar measure just made the ballot in Colorado.

Meanwhile, governors Chris Gregoire of Washington and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have called on federal authorities to reclassify marijuana so medical use isn’t a federal crime, and other states have since joined in resisting the Obama administration’s capricious pot policies. Closer to home, Evanston softened penalties for low-level possession last year, while officials in downstate Galesburg are currently pondering a ticketing policy. And there are more.

But despite demands for reform in Chicago and Cook County, most officials with the power to shape policy show no signs of moving—even as police continue making minor possession busts at a rate that costs taxpayers more than $1 million and 1,100 cop hours a week.

The latest to hedge is Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, who says she’s opposed to "decriminalizing" or legalizing marijuana possession even though budget cuts have left her office stretched thin. “I think marijuana can be a gateway drug,” she says.

In a sign of where things stand, Alvarez and other stakeholders aren't just concerned about changing marijuana policies—the very word “decriminalization” has them on edge. Technically it means that criminal penalties for possession have been removed or even lessened, but to nervous politicians, it sounds too much like endorsing the use of dope.

Alvarez, for instance, says she’s "willing to discuss" giving police the option of issuing tickets to some pot possessors instead of arresting them, an idea that's been floated by Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy and a group of aldermen. That’s essentially what Evanston approved, and it was widely understood as a form of decriminalization.

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel has privately told aides that under no conditions would he allow any changes on his watch that can be characterized as “decriminalization.” Instead, he might consider various “alternative sanctions,” with an emphasis on the fact that police could still make arrests if they chose. Skeptics worry that this approach would simply encode current policies that essentially criminalize pot possession for African-Americans while letting whites off the hook, though most reform advocates would support it as a baby step in the right direction.

For the time being, though, the language issue is moot, because Emanuel has put the discussion on hold. After county officials demanded reforms last year, the mayor privately promised them that he would propose new policies by January. But January came and went, and now the mayor has tabled the discussion pending further “study,” which is expected to continue at least through the NATO and G8 summits in May.

While marijuana reforms aren't a priority for Alvarez, she doesn’t hesitate to blame City Hall for putting a halt to the conversation. “We’re not quite sure where they are,” she says.

Without leadership from Chicago, Alvarez notes, the state will be left with a patchwork of local laws. Chicago accounts for about half of the 51,000 marijuana-related arrests in Illinois each year, and statewide officials have shown little interest in reform. “It would be nice if it was all the same.”

Each arrest in Cook County costs taxpayers $2,500 to open a case, though 90 percent of them are tossed out.

Thanks to misdemeanor cases such as those for pot possession, county prosecutors have to juggle large caseloads—about 444 per attorney each year. For public defenders it's even higher—about 2,200 cases a year.

Alvarez has said in the past that it’s not clear to her how helpful it is to prosecute low-level marijuana cases. “I’m struggling with that question," she told me last summer. "That’s the law, and we have to follow the law. If the state wants to legalize marijuana, well, that will be the law.”

More and more voters appear to favor it, but it won’t be the law anytime soon.

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