Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A few things the City Council should know about pot

Posted By on 06.20.12 at 04:05 PM

Kathie Kane-Willis
  • Kathie Kane-Willis
Unless you were sequestered with your bong for the last week, you’ve probably heard that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is supporting a plan to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The idea, he says, is to keep police officers on the street instead of taking hours to process arrests. It could also save taxpayers money.

The proposal had languished for months after being introduced last fall by Alderman Danny Solis. But in true Chicago fashion, now that the mayor’s aboard, the City Council is scheduled to take it up tomorrow and approve it as soon as next week.

Still, the measure has raised all sorts of concerns. Even though a majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, most politicians continue to fret about being seen as soft on crime. Emanuel, for example, doesn’t want the proposal tagged as “decriminalization,” even though it would make low-level possession a civil infraction instead of a criminal offense. Other officials are eager to let reporters know they’re worried that more kids will start using dope.

But they’re not the only ones with questions—advocates for drug policy reforms also want to know more. Since the Emanuel-Solis plan would still give police the option of arresting pot possessors, will it have any impact outside of politics?

I asked to Kathie Kane-Willis, a Roosevelt University professor and director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, for insight that could help aldermen navigate the issue. The consortium recently found that more than 90 other cities and towns in Illinois have passed decriminalization laws.

What’s your take on the proposal supported by Mayor Emanuel?

It’s absolutely, 100 percent a step in the right direction. I think it took a tremendous amount of courage for these folks to step up and propose alternative sanctions for marijuana.

But the devil is in the details. It’s a lot easier to pass something than to make it work, and that’s where we have concerns.

Like what?

We want to make sure the police are on board so that they will give out the tickets rather than doing the arrests. There’s a way that the superintendent can issue directives to the police to let them know how this should be implemented. This is done with the gang loitering law.

Right now police tell me that arrests count toward promotions. If the officer is giving tickets rather than making arrests, we want to see that rewarded.

There has to actually be a physical ticket that gives directions and clear hearings process. That seems so basic, but there were some issues with that in Massachusetts. Also, is there some way to stipulate that it really is cannabis so that we can save money on the crime lab?

Some officials have said ticketing will be a problem because cops encounter so many pot possessors who aren’t carrying identification.

If you don’t have an ID and you get a traffic ticket, you’re taken into the station, so I think that’s reasonable here.

Opponents say that lessening penalties will result in a spike in usage, especially among kids. Is that true?

The idea that it sends a message that’s going to drive use is not supported by any evidence. Most people are completely unaware of what the penalty for any drug activity might be—they know it’s against the law, but they aren’t aware of the penalty, even in states where it’s decriminalized.

I think that minors [who are caught] should be treated differently. I think that presents an opportunity, instead of making an arrest and letting them go, to send a message with community service or drug education.

But you still hear a lot of politicians declaring that marijuana is a “gateway” drug.

The gateway theory, it actually was termed the stepping stone theory, and it’s been disproved by the literature. In fact, the idea that cannabis will be the first illicit drug someone uses is less true than ever before. There are so many new and emerging patterns of use that this idea that people will start with smoking, then try a drink, then keep moving up—well, smoking rates are actually falling, and now the first drug that many young people will try taking is pain pills.

It’s really dangerous to send the message that all these substances are the same. Marijuana should be segregated from more harmful drugs. What cocaine can do to you, what heroin can do to you, it’s not the same. That’s not to say that marijuana is harmless. It’s better, less harmful to not use any substances. That said, cannabis is a substance that has a relatively less harmful profile.

In a recent paper (click here for a link to the PDF), you note that this has been tried elsewhere—in Evanston, Chicago Heights, and more than 90 other municipalities in Illinois alone. And so far the sky hasn’t fallen.

The sky hasn’t fallen in the 15 states where this has happened or in the municipalities that have done it. The reality is that more and more municipalities are passing these kinds of ordinances because they want to protect their young people from getting a criminal record and they see the benefit of using police time a different way.

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