Many of you don’t need The PHOENIX to tell you that this Friday is 4/20 — the annual celebration of all things marijuana. The date comes from a group of California teens in the 1970s who would meet after school at 4:20 p.m. to search for a crop of cannabis they had heard was growing nearby. Since then, April 20 has become a day to bring weed out into the open — people around the country (and in Canada, England and elsewhere) will toke up, often in public, in blatant disregard of current laws controlling the substance.
The ubiquity of 4/20 — merely uttering the numbers will elicit a knowing look from most people under 50 — demonstrates the degree to which marijuana use has permeated our society despite its contraband status. At a time when many local governments, including Chicago’s, are reconsidering their penalties for weed smokers, the questions to ask at this hazy time of year are: Do marijuana laws reflect reality? Do they positively benefit society? And if not, what can we do to make them better?
The PHOENIX Editorial Board believes the answer to the first two questions is no, and that lawmakers can begin to more accurately reflect and benefit society if they take a cue from some members of the current Chicago City Council. Last November, Alderman Danny Solis of the 25th Ward introduced legislation that would penalize possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less with a $200 fine and 10 hours of community service rather than an arrest. The proposal is designed to save the cash-strapped city money on policing and rake in revenue from fines, as well as free police to focus on matters more essential to public safety than arresting people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana. This ticketing policy is backed by Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Cook County and cities across Illinois including Aurora, Champaign, Evanston and Springfield have already passed similar ticketing measures.
Decriminalization, or the shifting from arrests to fines, puts Illinois cities in step with other places around the country moving toward more lenient marijuana laws. Weed has been decriminalized in 13 states and dozens of individual cities such as New Orleans and Philadelphia, and medical marijuana is permitted in 16 states and the District of Columbia.
The Editorial Board supports attempts by local politicians to enact laws that reflect a more realistic marijuana landscape. About 42 percent of Americans have smoked weed at least once, and over 20 percent try it before the age of 15, according to a study by the Public Library of Science’s medical journal. These numbers indicate that illegality is not an effective deterrent in our country, nor are warnings about the dangers of smoking weed. In fact, marijuana use is so widespread in part because it’s relatively safe compared to other drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not attribute any annual deaths to marijuana use, compared to the more than 37,000 it lists yearly due to alcohol. Though it is mind-altering and intoxicating, one cannot overdose on pot. It is considered by scientific consensus — in numerous studies, including a landmark 1982 report from the National Academy of Sciences — to be safer for individuals and society than alcohol or cigarettes. The research shows that weed isn’t as dangerous as current criminal laws suggest.
From an economic standpoint, the City Council proposal makes sense. As the law stands, those arrested for marijuana possession in Chicago face up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine. But, as Solis points out, the cost of jailing someone in Cook County is $143 a day — or roughly $25,740 for six months. Chicago police arrest about 23,000 people for marijuana possession every year, which costs around $80 million, according to Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey. For a city with a projected budget deficit of $653.7 million in 2012, this is unacceptable, especially given marijuana’s pervasiveness in society. Driving the city into further debt and taking up valuable police time — drug offenses accounted for only 4.8 percent of Chicago Police Department arrests in 1980 but jumped to 28.2 percent in 2003, even as Chicago’s murder rate grew to three times that of New York City — has not made any significant dent into marijuana’s influence.
When we foot the bill to arrest members of our society for using a common and relatively safe drug, we walk away empty-handed. The Chicago Sun-Times found that between 2006 and 2010, 97 percent of marijuana arrests in Chicago were dismissed — a clear waste of police time and public resources. And for those who are sent to prison, the cost is much higher and the results are no better. Studies have found that marijuana laws do not deter marijuana use, and that convicted individuals return to about the same rates of use after serving their time.
Rather than spend endless amounts of money fighting a losing battle, the Editorial Board urges Chicago to enact Solis’ proposal or another like it and capitalize on the chance to reap societal benefits from weed offenders. If the 23,000 people arrested for possession this year were instead charged $200, Chicago would net $4.6 million, not to mention 230,000 hours of work for community service projects.
Marijuana isn’t going anywhere — and if you don’t believe us, just walk outside this Friday and take a deep breath. Let’s finally accept that and move toward laws that reflect fact and provide returns.
by the PHOENIX Editorial Board