The Chicago City Council overwhelmingly voted today to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal passed 44-3, allowing Chicago police to issue pot-possession tickets starting Aug. 4. The move makes Chicago among a growing wave of states and several of the largest U.S. cities to adopt reduced penalties.
The ordinance gives Chicago police the discretion to issue citations between $250 to $500 for someone with 15 grams or less of pot.
Chicago officers would continue to arrest people caught smoking marijuana or carrying it on park or school grounds. Authorities also would arrest anyone younger than 17 caught with pot or anyone they believed was trying to sell the drug.
Emanuel made changes to his original proposal to appease aldermen concerned that the city was sending the message that it was going soft on pot. Those changes include allowing potentially forcing those ticketed to take part in drug awareness or education programs. Violators also could be required to do community service. In addition, the city still could impound offenders' vehicles.
“I respect the conflict people had in this process,” Emanuel said after the vote. “It wasn’t a slam dunk either way. . . I expect us not to end the debate here, but to continue scrutinizing.”
“This is one piece of correcting what I think has failed year in and year out,” Emanuel said. “We will evaluate this on an ongoing basis.”
In making the case for the city’s new approach, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy said charges are dropped against the "vast majority" of about 20,000 people arrested each year for possession of small amounts of marijuana, McCarthy said. And each arrest takes up to four hours of police time, compared with about half an hour to issue a ticket and test the confiscated weed.
Several of aldermen spoke about how the black and Hispanic communities are disproportionately affected by the city’s current policy to arrest people who possess small amounts of marijuana.
“If you had been white and privileged, marijuana has already been decriminalized,” said Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st,who spoke in favor of the measure. “The only people arrested for these crimes have been black and brown individuals. . .This is a way to potentially level the playing field.”
Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, said that the new approach will give officers the ability to fight more serious crimes.
“We need to distinguish between people who are part of criminal enterprise and people who are casual users,” Pawar said.
Aldermen who voted against the measure expressed concerns about the message it would send to children. Ald. Roberto Maldonado said 15 grams is a significant amount of marijuana and he felt the new policy would lead to a spike in public use of weed.
“With the adoption of this ordinance, many of those thugs will perceive and misinterpret the law that it is a license to smoke marijuana in public,” said Maldonado, 26th. “That’s why I cannot come to terms to vote for this ordinance.”
Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, an influential alderman who was among the first to voice concerns about the change, said today that “my skepticism has turned to support.”
“We all come to this debate with different life experiences,” he said, noting that while his generation did not use the drug, he is the foster parent of a “cocaine baby.”
Citing figures provided by the CPD, Burke said that among the roughly 20,000 arrests made for marijuana possession in the last year, more than 16,000 of them were African-American.
“Just as I don’t want to send the wrong message to kids, I also don’t want it to be the case that young Walter or young Travis are going to be 16 times more likely to get locked up in the city of Chicago than some kid from Sauganash or Beverly,” Burke said.
“This is re-criminalization, a more intelligent and effective way of addressing a problem," he added.
Ald. Nicholas Sposato, 36th, cast the other vote against the pot ticket plan.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times