Pubdate: Fri, 22 Jun 2012
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2012 Sun-Times Media, LLC
Author: Fran Spielman


For all their fears of sending the wrong message to kids about pot, a 
drug some view as a gateway to more serious substances, aldermen have 
an overriding concern: getting more police officers on the street to 
stop a 35 percent spike in homicides.

That's why members of the City Council's Committee on Public Safety 
hemmed and hawed Thursday but easily approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel's 
plan to ticket people for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

They believe Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy when he says issuing 
pot tickets will free officers to concentrate on the gang violence 
that's fueling the rise in homicides instead of being tied up on 
small-time marijuana arrests - 90 percent of which result in no conviction.

Before the final vote, the ordinance was amended to empower city 
hearing officers to mandate community service and drug education - in 
addition to issuing fines ranging from $250 to $500.

"It makes it a lot easier for us to get in and out - effect the stop, 
give the ticket, in lieu of arrest, inventory the property and get 
back out" on the street, McCarthy said after describing a process 
that should take less than 30 minutes, instead of four hours.

"I'm a big believer in the broken windows theory of policing where 
those little things affects the big things. [But] we're not fixing 
broken windows by locking people up for low-level marijuana offenses 
when nine out of 10 of 'em are not being pursued in court. This is a 
way of stepping back and saying, 'If this is not working, let's do 
something else.' "

The final vote was 13-1 after McCarthy assured aldermen that anyone 
caught "openly smoking" marijuana - or in possession of it on the 
grounds of a school or a park - would be arrested. The mayor's office 
had earlier carved out exceptions for those under 17 and anyone 
without "proper identification."

The only "no" vote was cast by Ald. Nick Sposato (36th), who 
complained that the 15-gram threshold was too high. But you would 
never have known it by the tone of the three-hour debate. Aldermen 
wrung their hands about the lenient message being sent to kids, the 
high fines and their fears that tickets would be issued in white 
neighborhoods while blacks and Hispanics would be arrested.

The dramatic change in the way the city punishes small marijuana 
cases had clearly touched a raw nerve, particularly with aldermen 
such as Jason Ervin (28th), who described his West Side ward as "dope 
central" for the last 30 years.

"We're talking about narcotics, which has been the scourge of Chicago 
driving violence in our city," Ervin said.

"I'm a little concerned about the use of tickets only in this 
circumstance, when there are a wide variety of charges that tickets 
could be issued for that would free up resources in the department. 
But dope in Chicago? That's a bit much."

West Side Ald. Emma Mitts (29th) said she was worried about how the 
change in the law would be viewed by "the 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-, 
14-year-olds. They have a tendency to misunderstand what we're 
doing," Mitts said. "Even though you say we're not legalizing 
[marijuana], it's sending a message that it's OK. "

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) was the first to raise serious objections, but 
he, too, ended up voting for the ordinance despite earlier fears that 
it could be a step down the "slippery slope" toward legalization.

"It's a lot less of a slippery slope today than it was three days 
ago," Burke said after changes were made to the ordinance. Minors 
"are still gonna be arrested and processed. Their parents are gonna 
know about it. They're gonna be taken into custody. They're gonna 
realize that this isn't just some simple little childish behavior mistake."

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) argued for a "tiered" system of fines, 
starting with a $50 fine for those caught with one marijuana joint.

"We're talking about poor people. I just can't see hitting them with 
a big fine like this," Beale said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom