Illinois: Decriminalization in Cook County Make Sense

By Commentary, Sun Times

There is a truth that must be heard! The last three presidents of the United States all smoked a little weed.

Obama, Clinton and Bush were young and curious and, fortunately, never got busted. A criminal record tends to put a damper on White House dreams.

And yet thousands of Americans are busted for pot each year, even now in 2009, ironically arrested by cops who (let's call this a safe guess) may have smoked a joint or two themselves in their time.

We are such a nation of hypocrites.

But let us not give up hope. We are also creeping, if ever so slowly, toward a more honest and workable approach toward regulating pot.

Case in point:

The Cook County Board on Tuesday, to its credit, voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana -- 10 grams or less -- in unincorporated areas of Cook County. The Cook County sheriff's police, when patrolling those areas, would give first-time offenders a $200 ticket rather than charge them with a misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to 30 days in jail.

The County Board's measure, which must be signed by board President Todd Stroger, came out of the blue on Tuesday, and some wary officials -- most notably Sheriff Tom Dart -- said the measure should be suspended until public hearings are held.

But we see no overriding reason to wait. We urge President Stroger to approve the measure now.

The county measure is essentially a variation of pot decriminalization laws that have been popping up across the country, and reportedly working well. In Illinois, Sugar Grove, Springfield, Carbondale, Normal and a number of other towns have decriminalized pot, lightening the load of our overburdened court systems and bringing in extra revenue. Last year, more than 40,000 people were charged under state law with misdemeanor pot possession -- less than 2.5 grams.

Springfield, for example, decriminalized pot in February to alleviate crowding at the Sangamon County Jail, but also to get a greater part of the fines offenders are paying. In Sangamon County last year, the courts collected $46,000 in fines for misdemeanor pot possession.

Sugar Grove in Kane County started issuing tickets for the small pot violations 10 years ago, largely because the return on so much paperwork seemed absurdly small.

"You arrest somebody for murder and it's not as bad," Sugar Grove Police Chief Brad Sauer said, talking about the hassle of processing a pot arrest. "And for such small amounts. It was ridiculous, time-consuming."

And ultimately, Sauer said, the courts imposed "such little fines."

Last year, Sugar Grove police wrote six pot tickets.

Decriminalizing first-time and second-time pot possessions, the chief said, also keeps the offense off a young person's record, which he said he believes is only fair.

"It's a warning on steroids," he said, "but if you're trying to join the military and going for a job, it doesn't show up on your record."

All new laws, admittedly, have unintended consequences, and the Cook County measure is no exception. It creates another headache for Dart, whose deputies would have to hand out tickets in unincorporated areas, but make arrests for the same offense, according to state law, in incorporated communities patrolled by the sheriff's office, such as Ford Heights.

How big a burden that would be is questionable. In all of 2008, the Cook County sheriff's police charged only about 150 people with misdemeanor pot possession.

A more troubling unintended consequence, however, is that decriminalizing pot could create an even bigger customer base for pot sellers. But rather than try to enforce the unenforceable, the solution to that problem might be to decriminalize, regulate and even tax the production and sale of pot.

How far should America go down the path of marijuana decriminalization?

Incremental experimentation, such as Cook County's new pot policy, will help us find our way.