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Listen to them, but don’t always do what they say

Friday, Jun 8, 2012

* My Sun-Times column

I want to say right off the bat without any hesitation or equivocation whatsoever that I happen to like prosecutors and cops. I respect and honor their difficult jobs. I couldn’t do what they do, so I’m glad they’re there for me and everyone else.

But as much as I revere them, as much as I respect them, I believe they’ve had far too much power over the state legislative process.

For instance, some very well-intentioned, decent people have been trying to pass a medical marijuana bill here for years. Law enforcement always stops it dead in its tracks. Why? Well, the answers range from “We’d be sending the wrong message to children,” to “marijuana is a bad thing.” And you can forget about trying to decriminalize or, heaven forbid, legalize marijuana possession.

For crying out loud, our last three presidents smoked pot, and their lives seemed to work out OK. But imagine if one of them had been busted for possessing a joint back in college. History would’ve been changed. Pot doesn’t usually kill political careers, but pot arrests sure do.

This spring, an attempt was made to finally put some teeth into the state Constitution’s protection of victims’ rights. Prosecutors were dead set against it. When Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez testified against the constitutional amendment, she couldn’t say exactly why she opposed it except to claim that parts of it were too vague. But she also couldn’t say what could be done to make the proposed language less vague.

The fight was over the rights of victims who’ve been shunted aside by the system. The Illinois Constitution guarantees that victims have a right to be notified of court proceedings, the right to speak at sentencing, the right to know when their attacker is being released from prison and the right to have an advocate present at all court proceedings, among other things.

What the Constitution doesn’t contain, though, is any recourse if those rights are denied. They specifically can’t appeal to a higher court, for instance. So their rights can be ignored and nothing happens.

Most prosecutors treat victims well, but some don’t, and that’s just a fact of life. Supporters of the constitutional amendment produced reams of letters from victims whose rights had been ignored. But prosecutors refused to negotiate a reasonable compromise, and the proposal died.

But the coppers may have finally overstepped when they fought a proposal to decriminalize audio recording of police in public areas. Right now, if you use your iPhone to video a cop being shot at by a crack dealer, you can be charged with a felony and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The police complained that citizens would be interfering with their jobs and worried that video and audio could be altered to make them look bad. But even after those complaints were dealt with, the police still stood firm against the bill. The House took the rare step of overriding police objections and passed the legislation, but it stalled in the Senate when the cops persuaded Sen. Michael Noland (D-Elgin) to sit on it. Noland said he believed the police ought to be able to videotape citizens pretty much at will and that the House-approved proposal would create “bad law.” His eventual counterproposal was literally laughed off the Senate floor when he tried to bring it up for a vote.

Law enforcement should most definitely be listened to whenever legislators address criminal matters. But no group, no matter how important or vital, should ever have automatic legislative veto power. Opposing that bill was a big mistake, but it may finally open the door to some much-needed balance between the rights of citizens and the powers of law enforcement.


- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - LongGone - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 8:44 am:

    Could it be that there is a lot of $$$ in keeping pot illegal? Given the socio-economic level of pot smokers vs. crackheads would legalization in any form hurt the lawyers’ cash cow?

  2. - PublicServant - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 8:50 am:

    There’s no excuse for not decriminalizing the audio recording of police in public areas. Noland is a goof. Thanks for keeping the heat on, Rich.

  3. - House of Pain - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 8:53 am:

    Agree with the audio/video recording disagree with the pot issue.
    Just look at California’s mess. Started with less than 200 dispensaries and exploded to over 1200, with head shops etc springing up next door. Talk about $ it is now a huge industry and easily obtained by claiming one has a headache. Finally medical studies are still at odds with it’s benefits and harmful effects. Tight medical and legal controls maybe, but not a mess like Calif has created.

  4. - Confused - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 8:56 am:

    I’m cool with medical marijuana so long as each version goes through the FDA approval process like every other drug and medical device. Get it through Phase I through Phase 3 studies for efficacy and safety and you probably have a money-maker on your hands. Good thing is you probably won’t have a shortage of healthy volunteers for the Phase 1 study group.

  5. - Confused - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:00 am:

    As an aside, the makers of medical cocaine (used as a local anesthetic and vasoconstrictor) had to get full FDA approval of their products before selling them.

  6. - charles in charge - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:04 am:

    Not gonna disagree with you on marijuana or eavesdropping, but that victims’ rights amendment was terrible. The prosecutors were joined by the defense bar in killing it, and they were right to do so. If they deserve criticism, it’s for not stepping up sooner and almost letting it become part of the constitution because they didn’t want to be seen as the bad guys.

  7. - Grandson of Man - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:24 am:

    I definitely support marijuana legalization. I don’t want another tax dollar going to fight a war that was lost decades ago. Because marijuana use is already widespread, the argument that legalizing it will promote more use doesn’t work for me. The Dutch sell it in coffeeshops, and I heard less Dutch people use marijuana than Americans. We’re also missing out on tax revenue by keeping it illegal.
    One or more Chicago politicians were talking about decriminalization, but that seems to have been cast aside, for now. If I remember correctly, the Chicago Police Chief supports misdemeanor decriminalization.

    Kudos to the city of Evanston for at least taking a step in the right direction.

  8. - Anon - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:25 am:

    I consistently find your columns the most level headed and reasonable column around. Id love to see some constitutional rights reinforcements, but it is always going to be politically correct to overlegislate crime. The videotaping of police law is absolutely insane.

    Having dealt with this issue from the employer hiring side, with the spread of publicly available information - marijuana arrests are killing careers of people in the private sector now as well as political careers. Even expunged arrests and the excessive overfiling of charges prosecutors do to keep their options open and beause they anticipate having to plea it way down - it all gets dug up if it either hits the internet or a private data mining company pulls the arrest records down before it is expunged.

    Another big issue is when these overly punitive laws are on the books, this stuff is prosecuted differently from locality to locality, ie lets slam the college kid from a low crime area and throw out the case in Cook County.

    It is creating some serious inequities and disruptions in peoples lives over relatively harmless (although a bit reckless) decisions.

  9. - LINK - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:34 am:

    Wow. An excellent read and thought out review. Thank you.

    PS. I agree with what you propose.

  10. - mark walker - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:41 am:

    I am afraid the new state RICO powers will naturally seep past their best-intended boundaries, and also come to be regretted, but difficult politically to pull back.

    When fear and anxiety permeate public attitudes, it’s politic to be “tough on crime”. When hope and security are felt, there is more demand for civil rights.

  11. - Rep. Lou Lang - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:46 am:

    For the record, the proposal in Illinois to legalize medical marijuana has made the news as the tightest and most strictly regulated bill in the country. We will avoid the out of control sales that place in California and have put controls in the bill to make sure that only really sick people get a product they need to improve their quality of life. We are THREE votes short. Those who support this should call their legislators.

  12. - amalia - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:52 am:

    NY is in the process of decriminalizing pot. how much pot? enough pot to fill half a Venti sized cup of drink, the drink size which is now outlawed in NYC. (from a very funny bit on The Daily Show last night.) thinking of moving…..

    lovely to have public safety when you need them, but sometimes law enforcement goes to far. on pot, in Illinois, they are going too far.

  13. - Cook County Commoner - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 9:53 am:

    It’s all about $$$ in politics and jobs. Regarding cannabis legalization, put aside the job and revenue losses due to decreased throughput in the judicial and penal systems. This alone is probably sufficient to thwart change. Instead, think about the financial clout of the growers, both domestic and foreign. On this one issue, they would be unified, in spite of contemporaneous savagery among their distrubution units in the poorer US and Mexican neighborhoods. They would set up a righteous anti-pot super pac, place so many intermediates between them and the pac that no regulatory agency could discover their involvement, finance the necessary “studies” and funnel essentially limitless revenue to federal and state politicians to maintain the status quo. I suspect the same sort of quid pro quo is at work with Sen. Noland.
    Those of us in Illinois should understand the dynamic better than anyone in the world. It’s in the open, and we tolerate it via softening or abdication of any common sense notion of conflicts of interest. A perfect example is the open and tolerated conflicts exhibited by Illinois House Speaker Madigan.
    We gloss over his dicatatorial control of the GA by pointing out that he is clever and is playing by the rules that he no doubt had a hand in crafting.
    And now we have reached a point that politicians are so addicted to contributions to maintain their sinecures that nothing short of a severe internal fiscal upheaval will provide the opportunity for everyday taxpayors to regain represention in government. Even then, Mike Royko’s proposed motto for Chicago and Illinois “Ubi Est Mea” (Where’s mine) could still bar meaningful change.

  14. - Grandson of Man - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 10:00 am:

    “We are THREE votes short. Those who support this should call their legislators.”

    Thank you, sir, for your courage and determination. My state legislators are liberals and may have voted for your bill. I’m sorry, my brain is oversaturated with factoids so I may not remember everything correctly, but didn’t some legislators “chicken out” by voting Present on medical marijuana? If they did, we need to try harder to convince them to vote Yea.

  15. - wordslinger - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 10:06 am:

    It will take a Nixon to China moment for decriminalization or legalization of pot.

  16. - chefjeff - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 10:15 am:

    It cost about $2000 to get a good lawyer, and pay a fine for possession of two, well, one and a half by the time the cop got her pulled over, joints in Indiana. Included were expunged record and promise to go forth and sin no more. Oh, and a few hours of jail time until it was certain Dad was coming with cash. Lawyers and county courts are a powerful vested interest that will not easily give up to decriminalize MJ.

  17. - wishbone - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 10:30 am:

    I had such a laugh watching Garry McCarthy and the local DEA head patting themselves on the back for their latest drug bust. They actually had the gall to suggest that they were making progress in the endless war on drugs. They must know they are not telling the truth, but they don’t care.

  18. - reformer - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 10:34 am:

    Why is it that our Republican friends, such as Sacia and Reboletti, understand the importance of limited power in government except when it comes to cops and prosecutors?

  19. - D.P. Gumby - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 10:40 am:

    This is the same tunnel vision that leads cops and prosecutors to continue to prosecute even when the evidence shows innocence of a defendant. Simply put, when 99% of those one deals w/ are guilty it’s very easy to view 100% of people as a threat. They still think the officers beating Rodney King were the victims cuz of the video. As to pot, police and prosecutors make a fortune from fed drug grants and civil forfeitures; many of the high-tech toys come from that money stream. Decriminalize pot and you start cutting the money stream, which is the real addiction!

  20. - reformer - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 10:40 am:

    Mark W
    == When hope and security are felt, there is more demand for civil rights.==
    The degree of economic inequality in a nation correlates with the harshness of its criminal penalties. More equal societies find it harder to demonize the other. They’re therefore less likely to impose draconian penalties on the poor than countries with greater inequality, like…the USA.

  21. - reformer - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 10:41 am:

    The DuPage criminal justice establish still thinks Cruz and Hernandez are guilty of something in the Nicarico murder.

  22. - Liberty_First - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 11:05 am:

    It is time to treat pot the same as alcohol. The tax benefits will help the state and the need for prison space and police protection will be reduced. The police should be enforcing the law not making it.

  23. - zatoichi - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 11:13 am:

    Small scroll on this morning local TV: Recent study, more teenagers smoke pot than smoke tobacco. War on drugs has been a huge success.

  24. - Honestly - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 11:14 am:

    Good column Rich. Pot arrests and prosecutions are easy and relatively low-risk compared to other offenses. It’s just good “business” (bad public policy)for law enforcement and prosecutors to support the status quo.

  25. - 47th Ward - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 11:31 am:

    ===We will avoid the out of control sales that place in California and have put controls in the bill to make sure that only really sick people get a product they need to improve their quality of life. We are THREE votes short.===

    With all due respect Rep. Lang (and I truly admire your work on this), perhaps if you made the bill more loosey-goosey like CA’s you could find the three needed votes.

    Locking people up for using a relatively harmless substance is stupid. Tax it like tobacco and regulate it like alcohol and turn this punitive policy into a money-maker for the state.

  26. - IrishPirate - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 11:47 am:

    It’s a very good bet that if Anita Alvarez is on one side of an issue that decent, thinking people will want to be on the other side of that issue.

    As for legalizing pot don’t hold your breath. Snicker.

    The hypocrisy of politicians regarding that issue is breathtaking.

  27. - vole - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 12:46 pm:

    Reefer was the coffin nail for Judge Ginsburg, nominated to the Supreme Court by Reagan. Although this happened before the reign of the three toking presidents, Ginsburg’s withdrawal may have presidential repercussions for Obama since Ginsburg’s replacement, Anthony Kennedy, may be the deciding vote on determining the future of ACA, and paradoxically, Obama’s presidency.

  28. - reformer - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 1:01 pm:

    == Tax it like tobacco and regulate it like alcohol and turn this punitive policy into a money-maker for the state. ==
    When we can’t even pass a limited medical marijuana bill, the votes will hardly be there for legalization in general. Just as the voters weren’t and aren’t there for same-sex marriage, but we passed civil unions by a bare majority.

  29. - Anon - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 1:45 pm:

    Medical marijuana is a joke. 90 plus percent of the people who get smokers cards are stoners, not people with serious health problems. Our society can not afford to have more drug users; rather, we need more productive, tax paying citizens.

  30. - Grandson of Man - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 1:45 pm:

    “When we can’t even pass a limited medical marijuana bill, the votes will hardly be there for legalization in general.”

    This is a great point. I saw a new poll in which the majority of Americans favor marijuana legalization. Attitudes are changing, as they are for same-sex marriage. This is a good environment in which to promote marijuana law reform, even if it’s done in small steps at first. I support marijuana law reform and hope that one day, marijuana will be legal and will have responsible restrictions, like cigarettes and alcohol. I hope that one day, the responsible marijuana user (medical or recreational) will no longer have to hide and will enjoy freedoms.

  31. - titan - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 1:57 pm:

    Well, Illinois still criminalizes guns, and we have an explicit constitutional right to have those.

  32. - wordslinger - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 2:04 pm:

    –Our society can not afford to have more drug users; rather, we need more productive, tax paying citizens.–

    Yeah, take that all of you who have been working all week and might want a Bud and a bud or two on a hot, sunny Friday afternoon.

    Get back to work, for society’s sake.

  33. - wishbone - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 2:51 pm:

    “Well, Illinois still criminalizes guns, and we have an explicit constitutional right to have those.”

    Boy, I am in trouble cause I have lots of them.

  34. - not a NORML lobbyist - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 3:37 pm:

    Representative Lang has worked to craft an incredibly tight and responsible piece of legislation on the medical marijuana issue. Having watched two grandparents die essentially from starvation brought about by the end stages of cancer that had wracked their bodies from years…I honestly wouldn’t care a single whit if some people slipped through the cracks and **gasp** got high. The fact remains that the language that Leader Lang has promoted makes that possibility a longshot but would still have allowed those two grandparents of mine to die a little less painfully and with a little more dignity. This is a bill designed to help very ill people. It doesn’t force them to use marijuana. It gives them a chance to try another option to ease their suffering.

    I applaud you Representative Lang. Hopefully some of this November’s activities will see some of your more close minded colleagues out of the chamber and those three votes will be there next time.

  35. - Independent - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 4:11 pm:

    I have no problems with pot legalization. If that did happen the Feds, states, and municipalities would tax it so highly that a black market for pot would redevelop. There would then be bootlegged pot entering Illinois from Indiana, Missouri, and Kentucky.

  36. - The Red Headed Stranger - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 4:18 pm:

    Anon at 1:45,

    Based on your logic we should return to prohibition because society can’t afford anymore drunks. Loosen your collar, its Friday afternoon.

  37. - Jeff Trigg - Friday, Jun 8, 12 @ 4:30 pm:

    Confused - You have to lift the ban on scientific studies of cannabis and take it out of Schedule 1 so we can research it in the US first. Besides, Marinol is 100% THC and has already passed the FDA. Sativex has passed in other countries. We already know cannabis is safer than aspirin and helps sick people, plenty of research already shows that.

    Rep. Lang - Thank you for your brave efforts. Your legislation was indeed the strictest of any of the 16-17 states that now recognize a patients right to relief. I thought it was way too strict, but it was a start. If it wasn’t so strict I would’ve done more to promote it.

    Medical cannabis is not causing the doomsday scenario in California that prohibitionists are claiming. Or any other state.

    What is the current justification for the ban on industrial hemp, by the way? Talk about using dogma and scare tactics to prohibit something, industrial hemp is the perfect example of the prohibitionists using outright lies to ban a product. Johnson Controls in Indiana makes car door panels for Chrysler using 50% hemp fiber that is imported from Canada. Illinois jobs and tax revenue lost because of what? The message it sends to kids?

    The ban on industrial hemp is just a government subsidy to the oil industry (plastics) the tree-cutting paper industry, and the cotton industry at the expense of our environment. Illinois could have a $1 billion plus industrial hemp industry within just a few years if we allowed it. We need those jobs and revenues that we are giving to Canada now.

    The last two national polls on cannabis legalization show more than 50% are for ending the violent prohibition of cannabis. Close to 70% support medical cannabis. I’d love to see the stats on industrial hemp as well. Politicians on the wrong side of this issue are already starting to lose votes and before long they will lose elections if they continue to support our failed drug policies. Two already have, an AG candidate in Oregon and a rep in Texas.

    84,000 police man hours in Cook County are spent each year arresting people for cannabis possession at a cost of $78 million. The average amount of cannabis they are convicted for is $55 worth. Almost 90% of the convictions for cannabis are of black people in Cook Cty. That is complete and utter failure. You can’t win the drug war $55 worth of cannabis at a time.

    Anyone who opposes re-legalizing cannabis but isn’t calling for another alcohol prohibition is a hypocrite. Alcohol is much, much, much worse.

    Thank you Rich, awesome column.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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