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City Council advances mayor’s plan to ticket for pot

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Updated: July 23, 2012 7:45AM

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.

Prior to 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 ten 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 continue to be arrested. The mayor’s office had earlier carved out exceptions for young people 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 tickets will be issued in white neighborhoods while blacks and Hispanics will be arrested.

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

“I don’t believe what we’re talking about is gonna solve that particular issue. It seems to add fuel to the fire,” Ervin said.

“We’re talking about narcotics, which has been the scourge of Chicago driving violence in our city. We’re only talking about this for marijuana. 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 (

37th ) was similarly troubled.

“How in the world … is this gonna help us with the crime that we’re facing in our neighborhoods now daily? … I’m talking about 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 okay. That don’t sound right given the fact that we have 30 given kids right now walking up and down the street terrorizing neighborhoods.”

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

“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. They’re gonna be part of the criminal justice system.”

Well aware of Emanuel’s history of tweaking his plans to appease critics, Burke called the ordinance a “work in progress” and said he’s holding out hope for even more changes before the final vote at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

“If there’s a good argument … that it should be 15 [grams], I don’t know that we’ve actually heard it. And there’s a big difference between somebody possessing one joint and somebody possessing 20 joints.”

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.

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