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Analysis: For Rahm, little political downside to decriminalizing pot

While members Ethics Reform Task Force  made an announcement about increasing transparency accountability City government City Hall Mayor Rahm

While members of the Ethics Reform Task Force made an announcement about increasing transparency and accountability in City government at City Hall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens on April 30, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:40AM



As a father of three — ages 11, 6 and 4 — Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) says he just cannot join what he is sure will be a broad City Council majority to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

“I am very much against this,” Maldonado said Friday, after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office announced he supports ticketing instead of arresting people caught with less than 15 grams. “For me to support an initiative like this would imply to my kids that the consequences of smoking marijuana are minimal, like ignoring a stop sign.”

Emanuel decided that he had waited long enough and should not heed the “just say no” voices like Maldonado’s. In giving his blessing to the ticketing proposal, the mayor availed himself of one response to Chicago’s rising crime rate and a police force that has shrunk due to budget cuts — even if it falls far short of providing a far-reaching solution.

Emanuel also no doubt acted knowing there was little political downside to the move. It appeared to appeal immediately to a broad range of people, which certainly factored into the decision of a politician who pays close attention to polling data.

The recent surge in violent crime in the city appeared to be the final trigger for Emanuel to announce his decision now, mayoral allies said. A top Emanuel aide said “a lot of what drove” the timing of the announcement was that the proposal provides an “easy way to get more cops on the streets, with all the violence going on.”

The savings will be tiny compared to City Hall’s financial problems. And nobody could promise that freeing officers from arresting and hauling pot offenders to stations would have a huge impact on crime rates.

But those who welcomed the mayor’s announcement as a common-sense approach included blacks and Latinos concerned that pot arrests involve them disproportionately; white liberals who long have disdained the “war on drugs” approach; and fiscal conservatives looking at the costs of processing pot cases that usually end up being dismissed anyway.

Emanuel’s move followed a similar call last year by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who stands to save more money than the city by reducing the number of pot cases handled by the county court system and jail.

“Politically, it makes a lot of sense for the constituencies they represent,” said Ken Snyder, a political adviser to Preckwinkle who worked for Emanuel rival Gery Chico in last year’s mayoral election. “Toni provided a lot of cover here. Now Rahm’s support allows the idea to mature.”

This was the right moment for Emanuel to echo Preckwinkle, Snyder said, because “he is struggling with deficits, he is struggling with murders and flash mobs, and he is struggling with police deployment.”

Political consultant and black radio host Maze Jackson praised Emanuel’s call even though, he said, “I think the mayor is doing this because it’s another shiny thing to distract from the murder rate.” Jackson also feared that revenues from ticketing would come particularly from black and Hispanic neighborhoods where many pot arrests occur.

Still, Jackson said he approved of the ordinance because it would mean fewer young African Americans being charged with crimes and “help them have more of an equal playing field in life” as a result.

The new ticketing policy also appeals to the left-leaning hipsters who have gentrified many neighborhoods. Emanuel aides prefer to call them progressives, and acknowledge that the latest move would please them, much as they embraced the mayor’s plans to expand recycling, crack down on polluting power plants and install dedicated bicycle lanes.

In 2004, Mayor Richard M. Daley publicly mulled decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot but nothing came of it. Since then, it has become easier for Emanuel to make the leap, said Democratic political consultant Eric Adelstein, citing “a combination of a more dire resource situation and shifting cultural norms, like with gay marriage.”

Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, unveiled a plan to decriminalize possessing small amounts of marijuana in public.

A pro-legalization website hailed Emanuel for taking “an important step for marijuana reform” nationally and published a picture of him over the caption: “Rahm just says ‘Now.’ ”

Meanwhile, some national political analysts say Emanuel’s old boss President Barack Obama could use marijuana legalization referendums in some swing states as a wedge issue to help bring younger voters to the polls for his re-election bid in November.

Here, City Council approval could be swift and overwhelming, proponents say. Ald. Danny Solis (25th) noted that he had signatures of support from 26 of 50 aldermen when he first introduced the measure in council last year — long before Friday’s public endorsement by the first-term mayor who hasn’t come close to losing a council vote yet.

“With the mayor’s backing,” he said Friday, “I should get a significant number more votes now.”

A spokeswoman for Emanuel, who is abroad on a family trip, said a council committee vote could come as soon as next week, with final approval by the full council expected at the next meeting on June 27.

When the ordinance was first introduced last year, Emanuel said the police department needed more time to analyze it. Aides say this is how they calculated what the move would be worth to taxpayers:

The starting point of the analysis was the roughly 18,000 arrests for possessing less than 10 grams of pot in the year ending July 2011. Factoring in how much time is spent on every arrest, city officials say that comes out to 45,000 hours of policing time.

In contrast, they figure it would take 18,000 hours to write tickets for the same offenses. At more than $30 an hour to pay cops, that difference of 27,000 policing hours would work out to a savings of almost $1 million, they said.

The dollars saved would go toward the police department, Solis said administration officials told him. Emanuel aides confirmed that this was their intent, although they do not yet know exactly how the money would be spent.

Issuing tickets would generate yet more money for the cash-strapped city. As with Emanuel’s speed-camera plan, officials did not say how much they expect to rake in from pot fines ranging between $100 and $500. A 2004 study by police Sgt. Thomas Donegan estimated $5 million in pot fine revenues.

Even police union leaders who have been constant critics of the mayor welcomed Emanuel’s decision. Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields said the FOP is in favor since officers would continue to have the option of arresting offenders who do not present identification and clear name-checks that police run on them, to see if they are wanted for crimes.

The union long has called for Emanuel to put more officers on the streets, because the ranks have thinned dramatically due to attrition and a lack of new academy classes in recent years. Those complaints have intensified during the recent crime wave.

At a time when annual City Hall deficits have run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, saving about $1 million through the pot plan “is a small drop in the bucket,” Shields said. “But in these times, any revenue that is generated, or any reduction of costs, is beneficial.”



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