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Updated 06/27/12 – 4:28 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — The City Council has passed an ordinance that will make the possession of small amounts of marijuana punishable only by a ticket in most cases.
The council voted 43-3 on the ordinance at its Wednesday meeting. The plan was endorsed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Supt. Garry McCarthy.
The proposal gives police officers the option of giving offenders caught with grams of marijuana or less a ticket with a fine of $250 to $500 for first offense. Anyone caught a second time within 30 days will face an automatic $500 fine.
Currently, the punishment for such small amounts of marijuana is a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail, and a fine of up to $1,500.
Under the new provision, anyone caught smoking marijuana in public would still be arrested, as would anyone caught with marijuana on school grounds, or at a public park. Anyone under the age of 17 would not be eligible for a ticket, nor would anyone who isn’t carrying proper ID when they are caught.
The mayor also included a provision requiring that some of the fines collected under his plan to be used to fund anti-drug campaigns aimed at youths.
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Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) was one of the three who voted no.
“I don’t want my kids to grow up and feel .. that the only penalty will be to pay a ticket like going through a stop sign,” he said.
But Emanuel and McCarthy have vehemently denied that the move amounts to decriminalization of marijuana, instead insisting this will allow police to punish more people for pot possession, given that as much as 90 percent of arrests for small amounts of marijuana are thrown out in court.
Supporters also have said the plan will cut down on the costs of jailing non-violent drug offenders, avoid having police officers spend hours on arresting and processing defendants for marijuana possession cases that likely will be thrown out, and allow the department to focus on more serious crimes.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who initially expressed skepticism about the plan, voted in favor of the move on Wednesday, and said he agreed with the mayor and superintendent.
“This is not a de-criminalization, it’s a re-criminalization; a more intelligent and effective way of addressing a problem,” Burke said.
He also cited police statistics on marijuana arrests showing a clear racial bias in enforcement also made a strong argument for supporters of the plan. Of the approximately 20,000 arrests for marijuana possession last year, about 16,000 of them were African-American.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said, “African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level marijuana possession. That is simply criminal.”
However, Maldonado argued 15 grams is a large amount of marijuana – enough for 30 joints – and would likely lead to a rise in the number of people smoking marijuana in public.
“Who possesses marijuana, except somebody that is going to use it?” Maldonado said. “There will be individuals – many of them, sadly – who will misinterpret this law that we’ve passed today, that it will be okay also to smoke it.”
Emanuel – who praised aldermen, including Maldonado, for their thoughtful deliberation and debate – maintained the real issue was public safety, not a grab for more revenue.
The mayor has insisted the move will prevent police officers from effectively wasting their time on small-time marijuana arrests that will only be thrown out.
Last year, 18,298 arrests were made for possession of less than 10 grams of pot, but the vast majority of misdemeanor marijuana cases are dismissed, according to the mayor’s office. Each case requires the manpower of about four police officers – two for an arrest and two for a transport – and places a burden on the Cook County court and jail system.
“The only revenue I’m interested is I don’t want to be paying a police officer time and a half to be sit in a courtroom for four hours, on something that 80 to 90 percent of the time will be thrown out, and everybody – both the person arrested, the police officer, and the judge – know the outcome,” Emanuel said. “I want them on the street, dealing with gangbangers and gun violence.”
The new ordinance takes effect Aug. 4.
In July of last year, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called on McCarthy to end low-level marijuana arrests in the city. She declared that the war on drugs has failed, and said marijuana defendants are contributing to overcrowding in the Cook County Jail.