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The politics of pot 

Are our politicians too paranoid to decriminalize marijuana?

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On the morning of October 27, after several weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Cook County commissioner John Fritchey stepped before reporters to make a demand that would have been unthinkable just a short time earlier: Chicago police should stop arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

As recently as the summer, many elected officials viewed marijuana decriminalization as a daring if not suicidal political move—and that's among the pols who think it's a good idea. But this fall, Fritchey coaxed a rainbow coalition of three aldermen—one black, one white, one Hispanic—to stand at his side as he called on city officials to implement a smarter, more lenient pot policy.

Just as Fritchey was about to start, into the room hustled Alderman Danny Solis—one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's closest City Council allies.

"I had to do a double take when I saw Danny walk into the room," recalls Fritchey. "I was pleasantly surprised."

Fritchey hadn't invited Solis to the press conference. He hadn't talked to him about the issue. He had no idea that Solis even knew he was holding his press conference.

But Solis effectively stole the show. As one of Solis's aides handed out a press release that made no mention of Fritchey or the event he'd organized, the alderman promised to introduce an ordinance that would make low-level pot possession punishable with a fine and community service.

Within the hour, the story had gone international. As the headline on one wire report put it: "Chicago may decriminalize marijuana."

To political insiders, though, another story was developing: Mayor Emanuel had sent Solis to take control—bogart, if you will—not just Fritchey's press conference but the whole discussion of marijuana policy.

It was the clearest sign yet that the push to change pot policy had gone mainstream, even if it's far from certain where it's headed or who will end up benefiting.

Welcome to the next chapter in our ongoing series on the absurdity of marijuana laws.

As we reported back in July, marijuana is believed to be used at similar rates across racial groups, yet African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession in Chicago.

These arrests burden local courts, resulting in punishments meted out so capriciously that armed dealers are sometimes let off with little more than a slap on the wrist while casual users are locked up for possessing a dime bag.

And though about 90 percent of these arrests are effectively thrown out in court, they cost county taxpayers at least $78 million and 84,000 police hours a year.

Polls show overwhelming support for amending the laws. In fact, 50 percent of Americans—the largest portion ever recorded—now favor legalizing marijuana, according to an October Gallup poll. But elected officials have yet to catch up.

Even those politicians who privately wisecrack about all the weed they smoked in their younger days are usually too timid to take on decades-old preconceptions about marijuana.

In other words, the politicians who have the power to enact new rules have been too wimpy to use it, and those who want to see changes don't have the clout. The result is a political limbo where reefer madness still rules.

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