A majority of Chicago aldermen have signed on to an ordinance that would allow police to write tickets instead of make arrests for small amounts of marijuana possession, a strong indicator the measure will pass when the City Council votes on it next week.
While there will likely be dissension from aldermen who have expressed reservations about how the ordinance will be enforced and the message it sends, Mayor Rahm Emanuel intends to let council members vote their conscience, an administration source said.
On Tuesday, Emanuel for the first time publicly explained how his thinking on the controversial measure evolved and why he decided to throw his support behind it. The mayor said it took him time to get comfortable with the pot ticket idea, but after his administration studied and analyzed the issue, he reached the conclusion that police time and resources were being wasted to pursue low-level marijuana possession cases which often get thrown out of court.
Under Emanuel’s proposal, police officers would have the discretion to issue tickets with fines ranging from $100 to $500 for people carrying 15 grams or less of marijuana.
Adopting that approach could generate millions in city revenue and potentially give beat cops more time on the street to deal with more serious issues such as gang violence, Emanuel and other supporters have said.
“I got comfortable with this because I think this is the right thing to do for a number of reasons. It does not undermine what we’re trying to do on fighting crime,” Emanuel said at an unrelated news conference at City Hall.
“We worked through a set of issues and I don’t underestimate or devalue, it’s a complicated issue. . .You’re not just going to leap at something, because it deals with both criminal justice policy (and) cultural issues that you have to think through carefully.”
Currently, people caught with small amounts of marijuana face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine. Emanuel, however, maintained his plan to issue tickets instead of locking people up does not amount to decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.
“It’s not decriminalization, its dealing with it in a different way and a different penalty,” Emanuel 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’s plan will be considered by the Committee on Public Safety on Thursday, before going before the full council next Wednesday.
Ald. James Balcer, 11th, who chairs the committee, said it would be inappropriate for him to publicly state his position prior to that meeting. Balcer said he’s sensitive to the argument that police should be spending their time on more serious crimes, but also worries marijuana use is a “slippery slope” that could itself lead to more serious crime. “I want to have a good hearing, and hear from everybody,” Balcer said.
Some aldermen already have expressed reservations about how officers will apply the discretion they are being given.
“We have to make sure it’s specific, they follow the ordinance to the letter and there is no gray area,” said Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th.
Emanuel said aldermen should ask tough questions, because he did.
Ald. Daniel Solis, 25th, the marijuana provision’s main sponsor, said once his colleagues see that Chicago Police Department officials back the plan, several of them who are currently on the fence will become firm supporters. Already 26 other aldermen have signed on to Solis’ plan.
“The police department did a lot of research on this, and I think on balance, once members of the council hear what they have to say, that people are going to support it,” Solis said.
Ald. Roberto Maldonado, 26th, said he will vote against the marijuana ticketing plan, because he feels marijuana use can prompt some people with “addictive personalities” to try more dangerous drugs. He also worries groups of people smoking marijuana on street corners get into trouble and end up forcing police officers to spend more time dealing with them.
Emanuel said he intends to include language in the ordinance that requires the city to dedicate a portion of the revenue from tickets to fund anti-drug use campaigns for children.
“I want to make sure our children get a clear and unambiguous message as it relates to drug use it is wrong and it is dangerous,” Emanuel said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun