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Editorial: Chicago gets real on pot

A proposal thwould decriminalize possessiless than 2.5 grams cannabis send violators incity court rather than Lake County Circuit Court could

A proposal that would decriminalize possession of less than 2.5 grams of cannabis and send violators into city court rather than Lake County Circuit Court could move before the Waukegan City Council as the weather warms up.| AP file

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:32AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support for decriminalizing marijuana is good news, but it won’t get us all the way to a sensible drug law.

Last year, Chicago police made 18,298 arrests for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana. That means about 50 people every day face up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine, although in the vast majority of cases, the charges are dropped.

That’s a lot of people who wind up with a shadow on their reputation and a lot of police time that could be put to more productive use.

Under Emanuel’s proposal, police instead would issue a ticket of $100 to $500 for less than 15 grams of marijuana. Issuing tickets instead of making arrests would reduce the processing time, freeing up cops to make our streets safer.

We hope the City Council agrees with Emanuel on this one.

Emanuel isn’t the first local official to wise up to this problem. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has been pushing a more sensible drug policy since the day she took office, and Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey and various aldermen last year called for decriminalization.

Around the nation, public attitudes are changing toward marijuana laws.

Rhode Island’s legislature last week passed a law that would make it the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana. Connecticut’s governor just signed a law authorizing medical marijuana, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week proposed reducing penalties for the possession of small amounts of the drug. Colorado and the state of Washington will hold referendums this fall on legalizing marijuana.

We support decriminalization as a sensible step, while recognizing that it invites new problems. As long as it’s illegal to produce, transport and sell the drug, those jobs will be left to criminal organizations. If decriminalization encourages more people to use marijuana, that will boost profits for illegal enterprises. It’s the same mistake the nation made with liquor in Prohibition.

But that doesn’t mean we should blindly adhere to existing policies we know aren’t working. Many people don’t see anything wrong with marijuana use, and every time someone is arrested for possessing a small amount it drives a wedge between police and the community, which just makes cops’ jobs harder when they’re doing the things that really matter.

Some of Emanuel’s other proposals — speed cameras posted around the city, for example — have been derided as disguised attempts to raise revenues.

But this is one idea that could produce new ticket revenues, cut unnecessary costs and keep convictions off some citizens’ records. The city should do it.

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