A CHANGE IN MARIJUANA PROSECUTION EYED
Chicago Considers Bid To Issue Fines In Certain Cases
CHICAGO -- Mayor Richard M. Daley has endorsed a proposal to issue
fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana rather than clog
the courts with cases that tend to be thrown out by judges.
Daley said the volume of marijuana cases that are tossed out by local
courts -- upwards of 90 percent, according to one recent study -- mean
minor possession is virtually decriminalized in Chicago now. "If 99
percent of the cases are thrown out, when is there a credible arrest
for marijuana?" Daley said last week. "They throw all the cases out.
It doesn't mean anything."
Much of the national debate on decriminalizing marijuana has focused
on its medicinal use. But Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana
Policy Project based in Washington, D.C., said a growing number of
cities and states are developing alternatives to prosecuting minor
marijuana busts to unclog jammed court systems and free officers to
focus on more serious crimes. "There's a growing sense among people
who just look at the hard-nosed practicality of the situation that
this is not a sensible use of police and criminal justice system time
and resources," he said. Mirken said his group has tracked at least 11
states -- California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi,
Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon -- that
have fashioned laws relaxing criminal penalities in minor marijuana
In many cases, police are now allowed to issue citations instead of
The Marijuana Policy Project argues that states should go even
further, decriminalizing marijuana use and possession entirely, since
Mirken contends there are no studies indicating a definitive link
between tough laws and lower marijuana usage.
"If you go into a store that sells cigarettes, you see yellow and red
signs warning buyers they have to be 18," he said. "Have you ever
seen a drug dealer with a sign like that? Regulation gives society
some control, but prohibition . . . just turns the market over to
gangsters." Daley stopped short of calling for state or city laws to
legalize marijuana possession. His comments Tuesday came a day after
the release of a report written by a South Side police sergeant
indicating 94 percent of the 6,954 cases filed in Chicago in 2003
2.5 grams or less of marijuana were either dismissed by the
judge or dropped by prosecutors. The same report showed that of the
6,945 cases involving 10 grams or less, 81 percent were dropped, along
with 52 percent of the 1,261 cases involving up to 30 grams. "While
officers are doing everything to keep the streets safe, the offender
gets arrested and is walking the street in just a few hours," wrote
Sergeant Thomas Donegan in the seven-page report sent to police
officials. "To me, this is a slap in the face to the officers."
Officials in the Police Department and the Cook County State's
Attorneys office said prosecutions often fail because of weak cases
brought by police, officers or lab technicians don't show up for
court, or a lack of interest in such minor cases among some judges and
Donegan, who did not return a request for comment, in his report
suggested fines of $250 for 10 grams or less, $500 for up to 20 grams,
and $1,000 for up to 30 grams.
Using those numbers, Donegan wrote the city could have collected
"well over $5 million" in fines in 2003. Donegan wrote the city could
also have saved millions more by not having the officers process the
suspects, do paperwork, and testify in court.
Daley said he agreed a smarter approach might be to free officers from
wasting a day in court -- or filling out reams of paperwork -- by
slapping offenders instead with a fine that could raise millions for
strapped city coffers. "It's always a priority to make sure officers
are spending as much time on the street as possible," said police
spokesman David Bayless. "We need to strike a balance to make sure
the offenders are penalized in some way and making sure officers on
are not taken off the street for cases that aren't going anywhere."
Bayless said the department chief of staff and legal advisers to
Superintendent Phil Cline would study Donegan's proposal.
But it was too early, he said, to say whether the department would
push for such a change in city ordinances. John Gorman, spokesman for
Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine, said prosecutors will
soon meet with Police Department officials to consider the proposal.