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Chicago Ponders Whether It Can Afford to Keep Arresting People for Pot

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On Wednesday, Chicago Alderman Danny Solis proposed decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana in the city, the AP reports. Under his plan, a person caught with 10 grams or less would get a fine of $200 and no jail time. The alderman claims the fines will bring $7 million in revenues for the city over the next year.

So far, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has agreed to look into the policy but hasn't come out with an official opinion. Meanwhile, at a press conference Wednesday nine Chicago aldermen pointed to issues with the city’s enforcement policies.

In Chicago, like in many other cities, minorities are arrested in disproportionately high numbers for marijuana possession. This is despite the fact that use is about equal across different ethnicities. And, the aldermen pointed, marijuana arrests in high-crime neighborhoods took police off the streets and limited their ability to prevent violent offenses.

For Emanuel’s administration, though, the biggest issue may be whether it can afford to keep arresting peopple for pot. Chicago has a $635 million budget deficit, and one of the centerpieces of Emanuel’s mayoral campaign was his promise to close this deficit without raising property taxes. To that end, he’s already launched an overhaul of the city’s water system. According to the Chicago Reader, enforcement of marijuana policy currently costs the city at least $78 million a year.

Events around the country cast some light on the Chicago initiative. A few weeks ago, California’s medical board issued a decision supporting legalization. Proponents there have long argued that taxing legal pot would be a boon to the state's dire budgetary picture. The American Medical Association, though, remains opposed and considers marijuana a dangerous drug. A new study conducted in Rhode Island and Massachusetts found that legalizing medical marijuana didn't lead young people to smoke more of it.

But, as a recent story in The New York Times points out, the biggest problems with cracking down on pot are increasingly economic ones. The Times reports from staunchly republican Kern County in California, home of a grassroots effort against a new law that would shut down many of the county’s few dozen dispensaries.

According to leaders on both sides, the primary issue is money. One opponent of the ban, a dispensary owner, points to the number of jobs created by his business in a county with double-digit unemployment.

He may have a horse in the race, but California's and Chicago’s budget problems do raise questions about whether local governments can afford to keep enforcing tough pot laws.
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