Credit: Johnny Sampson

Over the next few months, city and county officials will be mulling tax increases, layoffs, service cuts, and other stopgap measures as they try to patch together budgets for 2012. Even once-untouchable public safety departments will likely take a hit.

Yet local governments continue to spend at least $78 million a year arresting, prosecuting, and jailing people for marijuana possession. To put it in context, that’s more than twice the combined budgets of the City Council and the Cook County Board.

And local officials say there’s little chance that the tab will be reduced soon.

The price tag has left county commissioner John Fritchey convinced that it’s time to at least consider the L-word: legalization. “But the reality is that like anything else controversial in politics, nothing will change unless the public demands it,” says Fritchey, a north-side Democrat. “People have to unshackle themselves from the stigma surrounding marijuana and recognize it’s time to change existing laws.”

Welcome to part three in our ongoing investigation of the absurd world of local marijuana laws and enforcement.

As we reported previously, the laws are enforced unevenly and unfairly: though pot is widely used by people of all backgrounds, African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level marijuana possession in Chicago.

These arrests clog our court systems, resulting in punishments meted out so capriciously that armed dealers are often let off with little more than a scolding while others are locked up for possessing a dime bag.

And on top of that, it’s costing a fortune to dole out punishment for something that a lot of you—come on, ‘fess up—probably did last night.

The exact cost of prosecuting pot is hard to pinpoint, since no one’s keeping track. In fact, it’s easier to determine the cost of a quarter ounce on the street than to figure out what our governmental bodies are spending to enforce pot laws.

But consider this: For the last several years, Chicago police have made about 23,000 annual arrests a year for marijuana possession. That’s about the same as the number of arrests for assaults and batteries put together. In fact, cannabis possession is the leading cause of arrest by the Chicago Police Department, which has an annual budget of $1.4 billion a year. And roughly 5,000 additional pot possession arrests are made in suburban Cook County each year.

Police tell us that it takes two officers at least an hour and a half to make a misdemeanor arrest—or three police hours total. “They’ll take him to the station, put him in lockup, maybe walk down the hall and bullshit a little with the other cops on duty,” says one veteran. “Then they type up the paperwork and do the inventory. Then everything gets reviewed—sergeants approve the reports and the watch commander reviews everything. If you’re good, it’s two hours on the low side.”

If the offender is eligible to be released on bond, as most are for misdemeanor marijuana charges, other officers take the time to process that paperwork. If he has to be taken to jail, that’s even more time.

All told, marijuana possession busts currently consume more than 84,000 police work hours a year in Cook County.

Of course, these cops would probably still be working even if they weren’t hauling offenders to lockup—patrolling the beat, for example. In other words, the real expense for police is the opportunity cost.

“Every dollar that’s going into making one of these arrests could be spent on more serious crime problems,” says county commissioner Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat.

And that’s just the start. Every arrest turns into a criminal case in the Cook County court system, which isn’t cheap.

It costs about $2,500 just to open a case, according to the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a legal research organization. That includes the expense of court clerks, judges, and running the system.

Sexual assaults, homicides, and other complex felony cases end up costing far more, but even small-time misdemeanors like pot possession set taxpayers back at least the $2,500. That’s true even if the cases end up getting tossed out—and nearly nine of every ten pot possession cases do.

In addition, police officers are usually paid overtime to appear as witnesses in court. In fact, under the Chicago police contract, cops get a minimum of two hours of overtime every time they show up as witnesses, even if they only stay for five minutes.

So with 28,000 arrests, it’s safe to say Cook County residents are paying at least $70 million a year to arrest and prosecute people caught carrying pot.

But there’s more—the cost of incarceration.

Most people busted for pot possession are released after posting bond. However, last year about 2,600 of them were held in jail pending a court appearance, either because they couldn’t post bond, had felony records, or were on probation, according to data from the sheriff’s office analyzed by David Olson, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University.

Cost to taxpayers: $8 million.

Add it all up and you’re left with a tab of more than $78 million a year to bust and jail a bunch of black guys for reefer—only to throw out most of their cases.

That’s not even getting into the additional $10 million taxpayers spend to arrest, prosecute, and jail people for growing and selling.

Many taxpayers are ready for a dramatic change in policy, even if their elected officials aren’t. After Mayor Rahm Emanuel solicited budget-balancing ideas from the public this summer, hundreds of people suggested that the city legalize and tax marijuana. The suggestion was the third most popular submitted, trailing only pay cuts for aldermen and a ban on elected official putting relatives on the payroll.

And yet no official in Chicago government—including Emanuel—has openly discussed the issue.

Aldermen Carrie Austin, chairman of the City Council’s budget committee, and James Balcer, chairman of the public safety committee, didn’t return our calls. The mayor’s office ignored our questions.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson did a little better—he considered addressing the issue before deciding to stay mum. Last week Ferguson released a list of budget-balancing ideas that included such wacky proposals as turning Lake Shore Drive into a toll road—a move that would require a change in state law. But a spokesman says he left out a proposal to tax medical marijuana because it would require a change in state law.

As for the Chicago Police Department, superintendent Garry McCarthy told reporters over the summer that he was looking into the possibility of ticketing people for pot possession rather than booking them and locking them up. But since then police have continued to make marijuana arrests.

“It is not the department’s intention to cease enforcing any violation of the law,” says McCarthy spokeswoman Maureen Biggane says.

In many ways, Cook County officials are far more proactive. In 2009 the county board passed a law effectively decriminalizing marijuana possession in unincorporated areas of the county, and earlier this month commissioners expanded it to towns where sheriff’s deputies serve as the local police. So under the law, if you get busted for smoking a joint in south suburban Ford Heights, you’re likely to get a ticket. If you’re arrested in Chicago, you’re headed to police lockup.

“We need to make laws that are equal in all parts of the county, because it confuses people, and then it’s harder for them to follow the law,” says south side commissioner Jerry “Iceman” Butler.

That’s easier said than done. There are dozens of police departments with different enforcement strategies in Cook County, and major changes in marijuana law would have to come at the state and federal levels.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told us earlier this summer that she’d asked McCarthy to “stop arresting people for small amounts of drugs, because you’re wasting our time.”

But there probably won’t be changes anytime soon, especially since the people getting busted have the least amount of clout.

“I think we’re stuck in this place where we are right now,” Butler says.