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A Change in Marijuana Prosecution Eyed


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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 cases. In many cases, police are now allowed to issue citations instead of making arrests.

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 involving 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 prosecutors.

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.

Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Author: Eric Ferkenhoff, Globe Correspondent
Published: September 26, 2004
Copyright: 2004 Globe Newspaper Company
Contact: letter@globe.com
Website: http://www.boston.com/globe/
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