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Not so fast on enacting drug law
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 7/30/2009 12:01 AM

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As voters, we trust that those making our laws do so with wisdom and prudence. And that if they need a little direction, they'll seek it out.

A pending ordinance in Cook County makes us wonder whether that has happened.

The county board voted to give sheriff's police the option of writing a $200 ticket for possession of small amounts of marijuana. This departs from state law, which requires suspects to be booked, jailed and slapped with a criminal record.

The benefits of a law are obvious: extra revenue for the county, a court system less clogged by minor offenses, a second chance for offenders caught in so-called youthful indiscretions.

However, the proposal, which seemingly came out of nowhere and passed with little discussion, is now set to become a poorly crafted law that sets a bad precedent and creates potential new problems.

Under the ordinance, sheriff's police can choose to issue a ticket to those carrying 10 grams or less of cannabis, or they can send offenders to jail. Such a choice opens the door to discrimination, sheriff's spokesman Steve Patterson says. Though police are trained to avoid racial profiling, the Henry Louis Gates squall indicates the issue still is out there.

At least one of the three commissioners who voted no agrees. Jerry Butler of Chicago opposed the proposal because it would give the officer too much discretion. Two suburban commissioners - Greg Goslin of Glenview, Timothy Schneider of Bartlett - also voted against the law.

And the proposal caught the sheriff off guard. It showed up on the agenda, was voted on and won approval all within hours, after no consultation with sheriff's officials or the public.

Typically, board members check with the sheriff's department when drafting an ordinance that directly affects it - as any government body should. In fact, Patterson said, the board had talked with the sheriff specifically about another agenda item for the same night.

The new law would give officers two sets of rules to follow. In addition to unincorporated areas of the county, sheriff's police also contractually patrol South suburban Ford Heights, which follows the state's penalty for marijuana possession. But no one asked the sheriff about the impact of this proposal. Not even a phone call.

Granted, the number of such marijuana cases this law would affect is small: Last year 177 suspects were picked up by sheriff's police. But that doesn't diminish its importance or excuse its hasty enactment. The public needs a voice on issues as volatile as drug regulation.

Without a veto, the law will take effect mid-September; board President Todd Stroger indicated he will let the vote stand. The sheriff hopes at the September board meeting to persuade the county board to put the law on hold until his office can help tidy it up a bit and the public can be heard. We hope the board will be listening.