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Commissioner, some aldermen agree: Give tickets for small pot busts

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey joined by Chicago Alderman Richard Mell call upChicago police law enforcement officials for new Marijuanpolicy

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, joined by Chicago Alderman Richard Mell to call upon Chicago police and law enforcement officials for new Marijuana policy, Thursday, October 27, 2011. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:10AM

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey and a handful of Chicago aldermen are calling for the city and neighboring towns to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession.

The move would allow officers to issue a $200 ticket to someone suspected of carrying 10 grams or less of marijuana, rather than spending hours off the streets to haul someone to jail on a misdemeanor charge. It is similar to an ordinance passed by county commissioners in recent years that calls for issuing a ticket to those busted with marijuana in unincorporated Cook County and areas where the sheriff has primary policing duties.

“We want to make it clear — we’re not approving the smoking of pot,” said Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th). “What we’re asking is the police to make the right decision when someone has 10 grams or less in their possession — simply write them a ticket and let them go. That police officer will stay working on his beat.”

Considering the time and money spent on an arrest or jailing someone, Reboyras said: “We can better use our resources in the streets.”

Danny Solis (25th) said residents around the city have been “screaming and pleading” for more officers to patrol the neighborhoods, and this is one way to keep police on the street.

He said, too, there is a revenue benefit.

“If we are collecting $200 every time somebody is caught with 10 grams or less of marijuana that is a potential revenue that this city and this county can potentially use,” Solis said.

He plans to introduce a decriminalization measure at next week’s City Council meeting and will talk to Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy about whether he’s on board.

Fritchey, a North Side Democrat, said there is a link between city officers making arrests and the county, which jails suspects and is charged with prosecuting them. Some 23,000 arrests are made on simple marijuana possession annually, but 9 out of 10 cases are dismissed, Fritchey said. Still he pegs the cost of jailing suspects on these charges as well as the cost to the county’s court system, at $80 million annually.

Although the push to de-criminalize small pot busts in Chicago involves some of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council allies, the mayor on Thursday refused to take a position on the issue.

Three months ago, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said he was open to the idea of ticketing some people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, without endorsing any specific plan.

“Whatever I do as it relates to our criminal justice policy, I’m gonna talk to both the head of the Police Department and corp counsel on the way to do it,” the mayor said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has repeatedly declared the War on Drugs a “failure.”

“I understand some of the criminal justice questions,” Emanuel said. “President Preckwinkle has raised — and from both a budgetary and criminal justice [basis]. But, I want to have a comprehensive look at it before I make any decision.”

Evanston, Aurora, Skokie, Sugar Grove, Yorkville and Carpentersville already have laws in place allowing officers to ticket suspects carrying small amounts of marijuana, Fritchey said.

Fritchey stressed that if someone arrested for marijuana possession has an outstanding warrant or some other pending legal problems, the suspect would likely be marched off to jail.

But he says first-time offenders, in particular, shouldn’t be penalized with an arrest record, especially if their case is dropped.

“There is no basis anymore for us to have a policy of locking people up, giving them an arrest record, making them criminals and dismissing” their cases, Fritchey said, noting that an arrest record can hurt someone trying to get a job. “We need a new policy, we need a new way of thinking about this.”

He adds: “The reason we have these laws on the books right now is it’s a lot easier to appear tough on crime than to be smart on crime.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley embraced the idea of issuing tickets for minor pot violations in 2004, only to ridicule the County Board five years later for voting to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“People say you cannot smoke. ... They said, ‘Please don’t smoke.’ Now, everybody’s saying, ‘Let’s all smoke marijuana.’ After a while, you wonder where America is going,” Daley said at the time.

“Pretty soon, the headline [will be], ‘Let’s bring cigarettes back. It makes people feel calmer, quieter, relaxing.’ ... We said you cannot smoke cigarettes. Cigarette-smoking is bad for you. Now all the sudden, marijuana smoking is good for you. Can we take Lucky Strikes, mix ‘em together and say, ‘Smoking is coming back in the United States?’ ”

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