|« Chicago's Corruption Doesn't End at City Limits||Deference and the Affordable Care Act »|
Chicago Wed Jun 27 2012
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recent proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana sparked wide debate in the media. The Chicago Tribune questioned it, Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader called for full legalization, and Whet Moser of Chicago Magazine questioned whether legalization in Chicago was really possible.
As Chicago aspires to be seen a global city, perhaps we can look at some global examples of regulating the use of marijuana. Most people know about buying marijuana at coffeeshops in The Netherlands (though the Dutch are cracking down on foreign drug tourists), and in Portugal, decriminalization of all drugs in 2001 has led to reduced drug use rates. However, legalizing the sale of a drug like marijuana for non-medicinal purposes has no precedent, and the societal consequences thereof could only be debated by politicians and policy analysts in hypothetical terms.
Last week, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica proposed a plan to allow the government to sell a fixed amount of marijuana cigarettes every month to citizens over 18 who register with a government program. Use and possession of marijuana is already legal in Uruguay, so what's interesting is that the law is intended to 1. reduce the power and revenue of drug traffickers and 2. provide funding for drug addiction recovery and rehabilitation caused by more serious drugs like cheap cocaine derivatives. Compare this to Chicago, where marijuana will still be illegal and police will seemingly decide on the spot whether they want to arrest or ticket someone they catch with 15 or less grams of marijuana.
Now comparing the laws of a country of 3.3 million people to a city of 2.7 million might be unfair, given the U.S. federal government's ultimate say on the enforcement of drug use and trafficking. However, they provide a useful contrast. The end goal of both of these pieces of legislation is to reduce local crime: Uruguay by directly profiting off of marijuana at the expense of criminal organizations, and Chicago by freeing up the police and court system to arrest and lock up more serious criminals.
And as absurd as letting the government sell marijuana to cure drug addiction may sound to staunch drug opponents, there is one indisputable kernel of logic here: Uruguay will use the money raised by selling a drug specifically to combat the effects of more harmful drugs. Whereas, in Chicago, we have no idea where the money raised from marijuana possession fines will go (though refunding the recently-closed mental health clinics might be a good first step).
Obviously, Emanuel has no power to legalize marijuana within Chicago's city limits, and even if he could, he's not going to rock the boat during an election year for President Obama, especially when the current U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator refuses to admit that there's a difference between heroin and marijuana potency. But if Emanuel is serious about making Chicago a world-class city, he needs to look at seemingly local problems from a global perspective. And if he's serious about dealing with drug-related crime and addiction, he, along with Chicago policymakers and media, should keep an eye out in the coming years for how Uruguay spends its marijuana revenue.
Maybe the Uruguay system will reduce addiction, maybe the Uruguay system will be grossly exploited and counterproductive to the point of making the country's drug and crime problems worse. Either way, we will finally have a real example of what happens when a country allows the sale of marijuana to its own citizens, and we will be able to debate the future of marijuana policy in Chicago and the rest of the country from there.