Something smelled funny at Chicago City Hall on Thursday.
“It reeks of common sense,” said 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly.
Reilly had a point: for the first time, city officials acknowledged in a public forum that our marijuana policies need to be changed.
Of course, it wasn't quite that simple either. Aldermen advanced a proposal to lessen the penalties for getting caught with pot in Chicago—but only after they assured and reassured themselves it would “recriminalize” marijuana possession rather than decriminalize it.
In fact, for more than three hours the aldermen fretted about the plan: they worried about sending the wrong message to children, declared their opposition to drug dealing and gangbanging, and emphasized—then emphasized a few more times—that they’re NOT advocates of smoking or legalizing reefer … even if it's funny to joke about.
But police superintendent Garry McCarthy was there at the behest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to provide them with political cover. McCarthy argued that the new plan offers a better way to bust pot possessors while keeping police on the street, and he was convincing: the measure eventually passed 13 to 1, with Nicholas Sposato (36th) the lone dissenter. It's now on track to go before the full City Council next week.
"It was the toughest vote I ever had to make," says 11th Ward alderman James Balcer, a proud Vietnam veteran who's been known to rail against Avatar for being anti-American. "Drugs are a scourge in society and we have to find a way to get rid of them, but we also have to get some more police on the street."
Under the proposal, police would retain the right to arrest some violators, including those nabbed on school grounds, in a park, without identification, or in the act of smoking. But for most others the possession of 15 grams or less would be a civil infraction rather than a criminal offense, with fines starting at $250.
This meets the standard definition of “decriminalization.” But the politics of pot are such that not even backers of the measure want to be associated with the d-word. Mayor Emanuel denied it was a decriminalization proposal earlier this week, and McCarthy and Solis made the same claim in the committee hearing. “We are not talking about decriminalization,” McCarthy said. “We are talking about holding people accountable.”
Under current practices, McCarthy noted, police make more than 20,000 marijuana possession arrests a year, and each one takes two officers off the street for four hours, or eight hours total. Yet 90 percent of the arrests are thrown out of court. Tickets would take no more than an hour and a half while still enabling “aggressive police work,” the police chief said.
Council dean Ed Burke liked what he was hearing. He made headlines earlier this week by worrying aloud about how he’d explain to his son that the city was going easy on potheads. Now he had an answer.
“This is not necessarily a decriminalization of the possession of cannabis but a recriminalization of the possession of cannabis,” he said. “So we’re not sending the message that you can walk down Michigan Avenue smoking a joint.”
That prompted a collective exhale from the aldermen. But there were many other questions.
“How much would 15 grams of marijuana cost?” wondered Walter Burnett Jr. (27th).
“I don’t know,” said Balcer, “because I don’t smoke marijuana.”
His colleagues laughed.
McCarthy leaned toward his mike. “I’m told it could be about $50.” More laughter—and a few mutters in the press box that fifty bucks seemed a little light.
The aldermen also debated other critical issues, such as how many joints could be fashioned out of 15 grams of weed. Based on a New York Times story he’d read, Alderman Burke put the number at 30. To Sposato, a former firefighter, that number seemed, well, high.
“Some of my sources tell me it’s only 15 joints, depending on how big you roll them,” Sposato said.
Alderman Anthony Beale (9th) smiled mischievously. “I’ve never heard so many disclaimers in a committee meeting.”
Still, Beale had a sobering issue to raise: whether marijuana would be recriminalized in some parts of town more than others. “I’m concerned that this is becoming more of a revenue generator than an effort to deter people from possessing or using marijuana,” Beale said. “I guarantee you that the majority of people arrested last year were poor people.”
He argued that the fines should be lower for first-time offenders, then quickly added: “I’m not advocating for marijuana.”
McCarthy confirmed what we reported here last year—that about three of every four people arrested for pot possession are African-American. He said that's all the more reason to give police the option of issuing tickets instead of hauling offenders to lockup.
“What we’re doing is not working,” McCarthy concluded.
No one disputed that point, and several aldermen even agreed with it openly. That was saying something.