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Thursday, February 16, 2012

No movement in sight for marijuana reforms

Posted By on 02.16.12 at 11:00 AM

Chicago officials made national news last fall by vowing to rework our racially disparate marijuana policies, but in the three and a half months since, the budding pot-reform push has quietly been clipped.

It's hit the usual snag in Chicago politics: the mayor isn’t ready to make changes.

In the meantime, Chicago police continue to haul low-level pot possessors to jail at a rate that costs taxpayers more than $1 million and 1,100 cop hours a week.

"Elected officials need to realize that this issue isn't going to go away, nor are the reasons that make it so important that we deal with it," says Cook County commissioner John Fritchey, one of the first area politicians to call for reforms.

On November 2, 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis responded by proposing a city ordinance that would let police issue tickets for the possession of ten grams of pot or less. Officers would still have the option of making full arrests, but Solis said the law could help narrow the grass gap—the fact is that while marijuana is widely used in neighborhoods across the city, African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession in Chicago.

Twenty-six other aldermen signed on as cosponsors. Solis said that he hoped the council would hold hearings on the proposal as soon as November or December.

By most calendars, November and December are over. Solis now says he’s hoping to revive the issue in the second half of this year. “We’re doing research,” he says. “We’re working with the police department and they’re coming up with some ideas. I think the superintendent is serious. I’ve only had one conversation with the mayor. He just wants to make sure we don’t make a mistake, so we’re studying other cities.”

But Mayor Emanuel has publicly expressed little interest in moving on the issue, saying only that he’s open to studying it.

He's not likely to have much study time in the coming months, since focus at City Hall has turned to the NATO and G8 summits in May. As Emanuel readies for the international spotlight, aldermen say they’re not going to move on any legislation that makes headlines the mayor doesn’t want. Plus, police brass don’t want to look like they’re softening current policies before they have to contend with thousands of summit demonstrators.

For his part, Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy keeps saying it’s time to move to a ticketing policy, only to hedge afterward. Most recently, he told a forum last week that he was “all in favor” of issuing tickets so that police wouldn’t have to spend their time hauling pot possessors to the station for booking.

Drug abuse is responsible for crime, McCarthy said, “but we have adopted a policy that it is the crime itself.”

It sounded like the police chief’s strongest statement yet—but nothing has actually changed.

I contacted McCarthy’s press aides for an explanation of his comments. It took a week for them to respond. Even then, they didn’t have much to say. “We continue to review options,” a spokeswoman told me in an e-mail.

Nothing is different on the beat either. From November 2 to January 29, Chicago police made at least 4,480 arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession. It was by far the largest category of arrest during that time. Each arrest took two officers off the street for at least an hour and a half and led to $2,500 or more in court costs. This leads to an annual tab of at least $78 million for low-level pot busts, though nine of every ten cases are thrown out of court.

The meter keeps running.

"Every month that goes by, millions of taxpayer dollars are thrown out the window on cases that aren't prosecuted and shouldn't be prosecuted," Fritchey says. "Given the state of the city and county budgets, I'd think this would be a priority."

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