Two years after marijuana possession became a ticketable offense, arresting people with a few grams of the drug remains a bad habit for law enforcement, drug policy researchers said Monday at a Roosevelt University symposium.
Cook County has the highest rate of marijuana arrests anywhere in the U.S., according to a study released Monday by Roosevelt's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. In 2013, there were nearly 16,000 arrests in Chicago for possession of marijuana and only 1,100 tickets issued.
The reasons need more study, but lead researcher Kathleen Kane-Willis suggested that writing tickets, which requires officers to test or identify drugs in the field and take them into evidence, is so cumbersome that some officers might opt for the more familiar process of making an arrest.
In addition, police may prefer to make an arrest in violent, troubled communities simply to clear loiterers off the corner or justify stopping suspicious people on the streets, officials said.
"We have become addicted to arresting people with small amounts of marijuana," Kane-Willis said. "This is a serious issue that really impacts people and is hard on them ... we need to look deeper at it."
Meanwhile, less violent communities may favor tickets. In north suburban Evanston, possessing a small amount of pot is more likely to result in being ticketed, the study showed, creating a patchwork of enforcement that does little to change the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic people jailed for minor drug possession cases.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy supported a 2012 marijuana ordinance adopted with broad support by the Chicago City Council. In a statement issued Monday, McCarthy pointed out that marijuana arrests in the city had dropped by nearly 5,000 from 2011.
"We will continue looking for ways to improve our implementation of the existing cannabis ordinance, and possibly even improving the ordinance itself, so our officers can focus on illegal guns and reducing violent crime," the statement read.
Police officials told the Tribune that different districts in the city have different rates of arrests versus tickets, and police brass have worked to increase the ratio of tickets to arrests.
The Roosevelt study said last year 93 percent of misdemeanor marijuana offenses in the city were handled with arrests — a ratio of 14 arrests for every ticket, with most of the arrests in overwhelmingly minority areas of the city. However, officials said, to date in 2014 about 86 percent of all misdemeanor cases include an arrest.
Evanston Police spokesman Cmdr. Jay Parrott said his department made it a priority to handle minor amounts of pot with tickets whenever possible. The city's ordinance requires officers to make an arrest if an offender has prior arrests for selling drugs or is caught with marijuana near a school or park.
Last year, the department issued 261 tickets and made 120 arrests, freeing up officers from time spent in court or driving an offender to jail, Parrott said. Offenders are spared a drug conviction on their record.
"It was a policy decision that came down when the ordinance changed," Parrott said. "We had the ability to write tickets in the past. The (city) council said if you're going to cite them, and they meet the criteria, write them the ticket."
The number of marijuana arrests is alarming because it has long-term social impacts, Kane-Willis said. The arrests can keep violators from being able to keep or find employment, qualify for safe, affordable housing and even ban them from educational opportunities and work programs.
In Chicago — the site of half of all marijuana arrests in the state, according to the report — the law allows residents caught with as much as 15 grams of pot to be ticketed and fined $250 to $500. On the street, the cost and usage of marijuana varies. But typically a gram of marijuana costs about $10 and two grams is the average amount used in one small blunt cigarette, officials said. The majority of arrests in Illinois are residents caught with about 2.5 grams or less, Kane-Willis said.
The analysis of arrests and tickets showed that African-Americans are more than seven times as likely as whites to be arrested for carrying marijuana, even though the drug's use is similar across racial groups.
In Chicago, even after a law was passed to issue tickets, residents in poor, violent communities like Fuller Park, East Garfield Park and North Lawndale were more likely to get arrested for carrying the drug, the study showed. That's probably because a marijuana arrest, however petty, gives police reason to stop and scrutinize residents, said the Rev. Al Sharp, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, a faith-based activist organization.
"This is a ready way to sweep the streets," he said. "We shouldn't turn people into criminals because they possess a small amount of marijuana. Let's not forget the collateral consequences (of doing that)."
Ald. Jason Ervin, D-28th, said drugs are a "rampant problem" in his West Side ward, which includes parts of East Garfield Park and other areas that saw a high number of marijuana arrests.
"I don't know the data … but it depends on the circumstance," Ervin said Monday. "Less tickets and more arrests is not necessarily troubling to me. That is one of the tools that police are using."
Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, D-12th, said the cases clog up the judicial system and take up police resources that could be expended fighting more serious crime.
"What the real answers are here? Quit arresting people for low level marijuana possession," Fritchey said. "Or for the state's attorney's office to say she will stop prosecuting the cases, which will tell police they are wasting their time."