Drugs Laws on Trial

One of the interesting things about important social change is that you can never quite predict when it will happen, even when you know it is inevitable. So it is with the decriminalizing of small amounts of marijuana in Chicago.

The idea simmered in the mind of Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Chicago Police Department for years. The Chicago City Council approved the measure today.

Other municipalities across Illinois have been quietly taking this step for a long time. In 2011, a PCG study found that 72 of 153 home rule municipalities had ordinances treating low level possession like a traffic ticket, not a criminal offense. These were not just college towns: East Moline, Glen Ellyn, Sugar Grove, Granite City, North Pekin, and Joliet are among the many cities on the list.

The debate surrounding the new Chicago ordinance helps us understand why something so damaging to so many remained on the books for so long. Listen to former Chicago Police Superintendent Phil Cline:

“The easier we make it for people to use it, the worse it’s gonna be for society … Marijuana is still a harmful thing. At ages where they can be influenced by things like that, do you want your kids to be smoking marijuana before school?” (Chicago Sun Times, June 19, 2012).

In his blog, Springfield journalist Rich Miller got it exactly right:

“…No, Mr. Cline, I don’t want kids smoking marijuana before school. I don’t want them drinking whiskey before school either … But what I really don’t want, Mr. Cline, is people being arrested and sent to jail because they smoked a joint. Let’s be honest here. You want to lock people in steel cages for putting a substance that you disapprove of into their own bodies…”

This is a moral as well as a practical issue. It is not just that the punishment is out of proportion to what is being punished. More fundamentally, it is wrong to use the criminal justice system as a hammer to “correct” or “improve” people who have done nothing to harm anyone else. Doing so is a form of violence. It hurts people, mostly African American youth, and serves no useful purpose.

What is it about a particular moral judgment that gives people the right to destroy lives over it? In the case of marijuana, is it the fact that it is a mind-altering substance? Not so fast. Recently, one of the nation’s leading law enforcers, a civic leader, a good friend, and an opponent of decriminalizing marijuana, started our meal together with a sip from his well-stirred martini. Each of us should judge the behavior of others with great care.

Potentially addictive activities can destroy the soul and separate us from a good life. All of us, especially our children, need to recognize this danger, and internalize it, as early as possible. But the criminal justice system is a too blunt, often cruel, instrument for this purpose. There are other, better ways.

These issues are difficult and complex. There is so much more to be understood. But I am certain that concerning minor marijuana use, the Chicago City Council today has made the right decision.

I plan to devote my time and energy to these questions after I step down as Executive Director of Protestants of the Common Good on June 30, 2012. There is so much more to be done. Help me by sharing your thoughts and insights on what I have said here.

To those of you who have read my words in this column titled “Faith and Progress” over the past years I am grateful. It has been a joy to reach out to you. I hope the conversation will continue.

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