City Council approves marijuana ticket ordinance

File photo. (AP)
June 28, 2012 5:10:20 AM PDT
Getting caught with a small amount of marijuana will no longer lead to an automatic arrest in the city of Chicago starting in August.

On Wednesday the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of pot. That means people caught with 15 grams of marijuana or less will be ticketed instead of arrested. Fines range from $250 to $500 and the ordinance goes into effect on August 4.

Aldermen voted 43-4 in favor of the ordinance. Some officials say the new law will allow police to spend more time patrolling streets and less time processing people on minor offenses.

"It's not working. We're wasting money," Alderman Danny Solis, who sponsored the measure, said of the current process on Wednesday. "How many of you don't want 2,500 days of police work back in those wards?"

"Nine out of ten arrests related to possession are dismissed. The average police officer is spending several hours to process an arrest. For it only to be thrown out," 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly said.

Solis also estimated the city would receive $7 million a year in revenue.

Fifteen grams of marijuana is roughly the equivalent of 15 marijuana cigarettes.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said the way police and the courts are currently dealing with pot amounts to a revolving door that leads nowhere.

"The person who is arrested knows what the judge is going to do. The police officer knows what the judge is going to do. We keep doing it over and over and expecting different results," Mayor Emanuel said. Of the 8,625 misdemeanor marijuana cases between 2006 and 2010 in Cook County, about 87-percent were dismissed, according to statistics from the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

People will still be arrested if they're under the age of 17; smoke pot in public; or carry it in a park or on school grounds.

Roberto Maldonado was among the three aldermen to oppose the changes.

"Are we going to see a spike in the public use of marijuana in many of the quarters of our neighborhood, especially in my ward?" Ald. Malondo said.

"What kind of message are we sending to kids when we tell them it's OK to use drugs?" 36th Ward Alderman Nicholas Sposato said.

Also at issue- the racial breakdown of those arrested with small amounts of marijuana. In 2011, 1,000 were white; 3,624 were Hispanic; and 15,862 were black.

"If you have been white and/or privileged, small amounts of marijuana had already been decriminalized because the only people who have been arrested for these types of crimes have been black and brown individuals," 21st Ward Alderman Howard Brookins said.

The ordinance was first proposed last November by Solis, who said that he did not ask his fellow aldermen to vote on it as a favor to Emanuel, who asked him to hold off until the police department could study the issue.

Emanuel and McCarthy suggested at the time that they were open to the idea of such an ordinance and earlier this month both came out in favor of it.

When he first introduced the ordinance, Solis talked extensively about how the millions of dollars the cash-strapped city could see as a result of ticketing for possession of small amounts of marijuana and giving a fine rather than having it be a misdemeanor that carries jail time.

Solis and others also expressed concern that the current law might not be enforced fairly, with Solis presenting statistics showing thousands of more arrests in predominantly black and Hispanic wards in the last decade than in affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods. Besides, they said, the arrests are a waste of time because the majority of those taken into custody see their charges dropped anyway.

But by the time Emanuel and McCarthy endorsed the ordinance, the biggest argument was tied to the city's surging homicide rate. Allowing police officers to write tickets for small marijuana amounts would mean that they could stay on the street in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods rather than in the station going through the time-consuming task of processing someone for a minor offense.

In a statement, McCarthy said that the arrests of more than 18,000 people for misdemeanor possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana "tied up more than 45,000 police hours" and that the "new ordinance nearly cuts that time in half ... freeing up cops to address more serious crime."

Solis agreed, saying that such an ordinance would mean the poorer neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides would not see police officers disappear for hours at a time as they do now when they make an arrest for those found with small amounts of marijuana.

"The police officer is now going to be more in the neighborhoods that need him or her than in the district doing paperwork," Solis said earlier this month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.

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