Decriminalizing Minor Pot Possession Gets Rahm Emanuel's Support

After deliberating for months, Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to throw his public support behind a plan to issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of arresting them.
by | June 18, 2012

By Kristen Mack and Hal Dardick, Chicago Tribune

After deliberating for months, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday decided to throw his public support behind a plan to issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of arresting them.

Under the proposal, police officers would have the discretion to issue citations with fines ranging from $100 to $500 for people carrying 15 grams or less of pot.

Last fall, Ald. Danny Solis, 25th, introduced a similar plan, selling the idea as a way to raise revenue for the city and free up police to chase more serious criminals. Emanuel is getting behind a modified version of Solis' original ordinance.

"When the ordinance was first introduced, I asked the Chicago Police Department to do a thorough analysis to determine if this reform balanced public safety and common-sense rules that save taxpayer dollars to reinvest in putting more officers on the street," Emanuel said in a statement. "The result is an ordinance that allows us to observe the law, while reducing the processing time for minor possession of marijuana -- ultimately freeing up police officers for the street."

Currently people caught in possession face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Chicago Police Department statistics indicate that last year there were 18,298 arrests for possession of less than 10 grams of pot. Each case involves about four officers -- two arresting and two transporting officers -- and places an additional burden on the Cook County court and jail system, according to the mayor's office.

Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy estimates that the new ordinance will free up more than 20,000 hours of police time, which he said is the equivalent of about $1 million in savings.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana a year ago. She said people arrested for possessing small quantities of drugs often clog up the system and that poor and minority families are disproportionately affected.

Those comments began a debate among local elected officials and law enforcement. Cook County already allowed citations to be issued to people caught with small amounts of pot in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department. But Preckwinkle said that to make a real difference, decriminalization needs to include the city.

Preckwinkle said she began talking to Emanuel about the issue last year. When she asked him about his time frame in May, she said, "He still hadn't made up his mind." On Friday, Preckwinkle said Chicago and Cook County had reached a decisive moment.

"I'm very happy that the mayor has come around on this issue, and I presume that there will be expedited action, and it's one of the things that will help us reduce our jail population," Preckwinkle said. "You know, 70 percent of the people in our jail are awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses, at a cost of $165 (each) a day. So it's extraordinarily expensive to keep people in jail."

Those resources should be reallocated to putting people in drug treatment programs and getting supportive housing for people who are struggling with mental illness, Preckwinkle said.

Emanuel's move makes him the latest U.S. political figure to back reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Earlier this month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed a similar proposal by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. More than a dozen states and several of the largest U.S. cities have taken similar steps.

Emanuel is in Prague celebrating his daughter's bat mitzvah. He will not be back in Chicago until Tuesday to answer questions about how his thinking evolved. But his support is likely to help ease aldermanic approval.

Solis noted that his original proposal was backed by 26 aldermen -- enough votes to pass it on the 50-member City Council. But he conceded that some of his colleagues are against the concept.

"I'm hopeful that we'll get the necessary votes, especially with the mayor behind it," Solis said. "I think it's the right ordinance at the right time, right now, especially in light of the aspect of getting more officers on the street instead of spending time processing paperwork and in court."

Police will be able to focus on more serious crimes, such as drive-by shootings, burglaries and assaults, Solis said, adding that he hopes the extra revenue from the fines will be dedicated to the Police Department.

(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune


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