Pot penalties, plastic bag ban on city council agenda

November 2, 2011 (CHICAGO)

The top issue will be concern over Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed cuts to the city budget.

However, aldermen tacklee a proposed ban on plastic shopping bags. Northwest Side Ald. Joe Moreno said the bags end up littering city streets. So, he is proposing an ordinance banning stores larger than 5,000 feet from using the bags.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association is expected to fight his proposal.

Also on Wednesday's agenda are suggested changes in the way the city prosecutes marijuana offenses.

Near Southwest Side Ald. Danny Solis introduced an ordinance that requires those caught with10 grams or less to pay a $200 fine instead of being arrested and jailed on misdemeanor charges.

Solsz estimates the change would generate $7 million a year and, since the vast majority of such cases are dismissed, would save police and courthouse workers money and thousands of hours of time.

"I am concerned about this ordinance helping get more police into our neighborhoods so they can protect our citizens, Solis said at Wednesday's city council meeting. "That's the bottom line for me." Emanuel, who said he'd already ordered the police department to study pot decriminalization, did not take a stand on the issue.

"I want to look at it from both sides and be thoughtful," Emanuel said. "Other cities that have done this have then had to go back and do corrections because it has created its own set of problems."

Similar laws exist around the country, but unlike in other states and cities where debate has often focused on marijuana use, the discussions in Chicago are centered almost entirely on money and wasted resources.

"In these trying times of the economy, we could really use the revenue generated by fines versus arrests," Solis said. "And each (arrest) means police officers are spending an inordinate amount of time outside the neighborhoods, inside the district offices doing paperwork."

Solis' plan would levy a ticket for someone in possession of 10 grams or less of the drug that could be cleared with a $200 fine and up to 10 hours of community service. Currently, the offense is a misdemeanor that carries up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Backers of the change argue that arrests for such infractions add up to a colossal waste of time. Of the 8,625 misdemeanor marijuana cases between 2006 and 2010, about 87 percent -- or 7,227 cases -- were dismissed, according to statistics from the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

Citing the dismissal rate, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle recently recommended that Chicago police stop making arrests for small amounts of marijuana. She noted the county, where the financial picture is as grim as the city's, spends $78 million on marijuana arrests.

Alderman Willie Cochran, who spent 25 years as a Chicago police officer, backs the ordinance.

"I support it because people are getting arrested, going into court and judges are ... dismissing (the cases) and releasing them all anyway," Cochran said.

Solis said the 23,000 arrests on misdemeanor charges in the city last year added up to at least 84,000 hours that police spent driving suspects out of neighborhoods where they were arrested, doing paperwork, inventorying evidence and other chores that take them off the street.

And that doesn't include the hours officers are paid to appear in court or the time that county workers, from those in the jail to the courthouse, devote to such cases.

Although it would decriminalize the offense, the ordinance would be stricter than some elsewhere in the U.S. In California, for example, possession of as much as an ounce of marijuana, or 28 grams, is an infraction no more serious than a speeding ticket. Under a more than 30-year-old state law in New York, people caught with 25 grams are only ticketed as long as the drug is out of public view.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy hasn't come out in support the ordinance, which likely won't get a full city council vote until early next year. But unlike in some jurisdictions where law enforcement officials opposed such measures, McCarthy has signaled he's open to such a plan.

"With minor possession, it would be in everybody's interests to free up officers, keep them in the field (where they) effectively enforce the law," department spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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