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Rahm says pot plan isn’t ‘decriminalization’ — ex-federal drug czar disagrees

“There’s good arguments with issue releasing more policemen with fine. But it’s been slippery slope too” said Public Safety Committee

“There’s good arguments with the issue of releasing more policemen with the fine. But, it’s been a slippery slope, too,” said Public Safety Committee Chairman Jim Balcer (11th). “Could this lead to legalizing” marijuana? | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 21, 2012 6:18AM

Under fire from aldermen, a former police superintendent and a former federal drug czar, Mayor Rahm Emanuel insisted Tuesday that he’s not trying to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, just “dealing with it in a different way” that frees police officers to fight more important crimes.

“It’s not decriminalization. It’s dealing with it in a different way. Different penalty. Very different” than decriminalization, the mayor said of the hot-button ordinance that a City Council committee will consider Thursday.

“I want to make sure our children get a clear and unambiguous message as it relates to drug use. It is wrong, and it is dangerous,” he said.

To appease squeamish aldermen, Emanuel said he plans to earmark revenue from his proposal to educate schoolchildren on the dangers of drug and tobacco use. The money would come from the $100-to-$500 tickets that would be issued to people caught with 15 grams or less or marijuana.

Peter Bensinger, former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration under former Presidents Jerry Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, was not appeased by the mayor’s financial gesture or his game of semantics.

Asked if the mayor’s plan to issue pot tickets was the very definition of decriminalization, Bensinger said, “It sounds like it. You’re getting a traffic ticket, and that’s all you get. How many tickets can you get — three or five? And what’s gonna prevent the person from getting behind the wheel of an automobile when we know marijuana use doubles the risk of a crash.”

Bensinger said what’s wrong with the mayor’s plan is that it lacks a disincentive.

“There’s a value in not having thousands of arrests and no conviction. But, I would still have an arrest made that could be expunged if they stay clean for six months,” he said.

“I want them drug-tested. If you just issue tickets and it’s nothing more, the person has no disincentive to discontinue using.”

Other legal experts contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times universally said that the mayor was wrong: His plan would decriminalize pot, but they all thought it was a good idea.

Former Criminal Court Judge Michael Bolan said he used to have to waste too much time and resources on cases involving small amounts of drugs and the cases often were tossed.

“This is an absolute waste of our taxpayers’ money: You criminalize a whole segment of our society unnecessarily, same as at the turn of the century for alcohol,” Bolan said. “It goes in the category of parking tickets. It’s quasi-criminal. This is not even a petty offense. He doesn’t want that word [decriminalize] attached to it. He’s looking to save money and make money.”

Former Chicago Police Supt. Phil Cline questioned how police officers will execute the ticketing plan.

“What do you do with the marijuana? The officer still has to come off the street to inventory it. Does the officer keep it until their tour is over, then go into the station?” Cline said. “Are they gonna test the marijuana before you go to the hearing to make sure it really is marijuana? If they don’t test it, the person is gonna say it was oregano and get off. All those questions have to be answered. It’s not as easy as writing tickets.”

The mayor’s plan has put the City Council on the hot seat, and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) — who raised questions Monday — isn’t the only one squirming.

“There’s good arguments with the issue of releasing more policemen with the fine. But, it’s been a slippery slope, too,” said Public Safety Committee Chairman Jim Balcer (11th), whose committee will hold a hearing on the mayor’s ordinance at 10 a.m. Thursday.

“Could this lead to legalizing [marijuana]?” Balcer said. “Could it lead to more problems than we have with it — health issues, too? Let’s be honest. Smoking isn’t good for your health. Pot may be worse.”

Former Police Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th), said he, too, has questions about enforcement.

“How do you determine the amount [of pot]? If there’s a violation or ticket, how’s it gonna be collected? Is it just gonna be a ticket and people just walk away? It’s like jaywalking. How do you enforce jaywalking?” Beale said.

With blacks and Hispanics bearing the brunt of marijuana arrests over the last decade, Ald. Lona Lane (18th) said she likes the idea of issuing tickets instead of creating a criminal record that could hurt a young person’s ability to get a job or rent an apartment.

But, she said, “What if they don’t pay the tickets? Then what? I’ll feel like we’re not doing our job. They do need to be held accountable. And who’s to say someone who gets a fine has a job? A lot of these teenagers [who] get caught up in a lot of mess, they don’t even work. So, how do we get the money? Does it fall back on parents or deaf ears?”

Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) said he is not comfortable with the idea of issuing $100-to-$500 tickets to those caught with 15 grams or less of marijuana.

“I’d like to see the people who smoke grass go out and cut the grass at vacant buildings. Do some physical community service work that’s meaningful, instead of just getting off with a minor fine,” Cullerton said.

“Make ’em think. Make ’em work and do some good for the community. . . . These vacant properties need to be cleaned up.”

Emanuel said he expects aldermen to ask tough questions because he did, too.

“I got comfortable with this because I think this is the right thing to do for a number of reasons. It does not undermine what we’re trying to do on fighting crime,” he said. “In fact, it more focuses us on the hard-core elements that are affecting neighborhoods in a way that I don’t think is right and makes it intolerable for our children and families. And I want police officers fighting the crimes that need to be fought.”

The Sun-Times reported last year that nine out of 10 low-level marijuana cases end up being dismissed.

“That uses court time, police time, resources — all the time that you lose [when you] could be . . . fighting the big drug dealers and the gang-bangers. It’s lost opportunity as much as where your resources go,” Emanuel said.

Contributing: Abdon M. Pallasch

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