• Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times
  • Mayor Emanuel answers questions Wednesday at a press conference outside the Shedd Aquarium.

Illinois should follow Chicago’s example and ease up on marijuana, Mayor Emanuel told a General Assembly committee Tuesday. That part of his testimony got the lion’s share of media attention, but the mayor’s other drug proposal was more significant.

Emanuel recommended downgrading possession of a gram or less of a controlled substance from a felony to a misdemeanor—a change that not only would save money and improve the chances for drug abusers, but that might nudge Illinois toward more substantial drug reform.

The felony penalty in small narcotics cases ties up cops, courts, probation officers, the county jail, and the state prisons. And a felony conviction often leads to a “lifetime of struggles,” as Emanuel pointed out, making it harder to find housing, get into college, receive financial aid for school, and find legitimate work. Even before Chicago made possession of 15 grams or less of pot a ticketable offense—a policy the mayor now recommends be adopted statewide—possession of 30 grams or less was only a misdemeanor. Possession of a sneeze-and-it’s-gone amount of cocaine or heroin is a felony.

Is the mayor proposing this reduction in narcotics penalties for his own political purposes? Sure. After closing 50 schools, most of them in black neighborhoods, he’s worried about his African-American support as he heads toward the February election. He could face a strong challenge from an African-American if Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, decides to run. Blacks might especially appreciate his proposal, since they’re convicted of narcotics crimes at higher rates than other races.

But whatever the motive, the proposal is a welcome one. Illinois is stingy on social service but extravagant on prosecuting drug addicts. Since 2006, $778 million has been spent to jail defendants charged with the lowest-level controlled substance violations while their cases were pending, according to calculations by the Chicago Reporter‘s Angela Caputo. That was the tab not statewide, but just here in Cook County. Caputo considered all Class 4 felony defendants—possession up to 15 grams—but many of these cases are gram or less, she says. And the $778 million is only for pretrial jailing; it doesn’t include the toll for arresting, prosecuting, defending, judging, and, for those convicted, monitoring on probation or imprisoning.

The state has been squandering money on the prosecution of addicts for decades. Indeed, the mayor’s proposal is not a new one. In 1996, the Chicago Crime Commission said that Illinois was spending far too much time and money prosecuting petty drug users, and recommended the same downgrade to a misdemeanor in gram-or-less cases that Emanuel is recommending now. The felony penalty “deludes the public into thinking that we are making progress in fighting crime,” the commission said. And the commission has always been politically conservative.

The chief criminal court judge in Cook County then, Thomas Fitzgerald, backed the crime commission’s proposal. His courts were dealing with thousands of cases involving “less than the content of a sugar packet,” he told the Sun-Times. The cost of running the sheriff’s department and the offices of the state’s attorney and public defender had doubled during the 1990s because of the increase in drug cases, the Sun-Times noted.

The crime commission’s proposal was drafted into a bill and introduced in Springfield—where it died in committee.

What a difference 18 years has made: none. The legislature is still holding the line on trace amounts of cocaine and heroin. Legislatures aren’t generally courageous bodies, especially regarding crime and punishment, and the Illinois General Assembly is among the fainthearted. Thirteen states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of controlled substances, but Illinois legislators are cowering behind the curve.

Will they show some fortitude now, just because Chicago’s mayor wants them to?

Emanuel has hinted that his support for the softening of the war on drug users may be contingent on backing from legislators for stiffer sentences for crimes committed with guns. The marginal lengthening of gun-crime sentences that’s been discussed in Springfield isn’t likely to reduce shootings in Chicago. But pursuing tougher sentences in gun cases will look good for the mayor in his campaign. (“See how I’m addressing violence?”) Emanuel’s criminal-justice point person in Springfield, state representative Mike Zalewski of west-suburban Riverside, has said he hopes to introduce a reform package in January. That would be just weeks before the mayoral election.

The mayor’s proposal on narcotics would leave untouched the black market that causes so much murder and mayhem in Chicago. But even though approval of the war on drugs is declining, broad support for legalization of all drugs is not just around the bend. The gram-or-less reform would chip away at the damage done by prohibition, and at the amount wasted on the drug war’s foot soldiers—the cops, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, probation officers, and jail and prison guards. The money saved could be spent on ameliorating the conditions that make drug use an especially attractive option in poor neighborhoods.

And if the reform worked, it might encourage the state to take larger steps toward curtailing its drug prohibitions. Political ploy or not, Emanuel’s proposal on controlled substances should be adopted.