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Tickets for pot frees up cops, boosts coffers, other cities say

Updated: July 17, 2012 12:48PM

If Chicago decriminalizes minor possession of marijuana, it will join dozens of municipalities throughout the country that have taken similar action with the hope of freeing up law enforcement while racking up fines.

A number of jurisdictions in Illinois have given their police officers the option of writing tickets for minor pot possession, including Evanston, Springfield and Cook County.

According to one group that supports the effort, Chicago could be headed in the same direction as other parts of the country and much of Europe.

“What is being proposed is by no means aberrational. It is where the whole country has been going since 1973,” said Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director of NORML, which advocates for decriminalizing marijuana.

In those cities in Illinois where possession has been decriminalized, officials said, the change resulted in cops having more time to address more serious crime and also resulted in additional revenue ending up in city coffers. It also meant that those ticketed faced some consequences for their actions, when in the past they often saw the charges against them completely dropped. Still, those ticketed for pot possession didn’t walk away with a criminal record, officials note.

On Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel threw his support behind a proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot in Chicago. If the City Council goes along, police officers will be free to issue a ticket with a fine ranging from $100 to $500. The tickets would apply to people caught with 15 grams of pot or less.

Ticketing “allows us to observe the law while reducing the processing time for minor possession of marijuana — ultimately freeing up police officers for the street,” Emanuel said in a statement.

Springfield Police Chief Robert Williams said giving his officers in 2009 the option to write tickets for small amounts of marijuana possession did free them up to prioritize more serious crimes.

It also benefits first-time younger offenders who avoid getting a permanent mark on their record, he said.

“It gives the officers some options and some tools, for which [offenders] don’t have a criminal record. I like to believe it’s given our young people some option not to be introduced into the criminal justice system formally,” he said.

But an arrest could still be necessary in cases involving small amounts of pot, he said.

“We’re being asked to do more with less. There are occasions when it frees up time. But I want to be clear that in certain situations ... I strongly support them going through the more traditional things,” he said. “There are some things that are just the cost of doing business as far as what we do.”

In Carbondale, before 2004, the local state’s attorney was getting backlogged and was increasingly unable to bring marijuana cases involving possession of 10 grams or less — meaning the cases were simply dropped.

The city changed its code, allowing for tickets to be issued with the exception of cases where other crimes were also committed. The city, though, still requires such defendants go through booking and identification.

But the new law allows the city to handle an issue that otherwise was not getting addressed when charges were dropped because prosecutors were too busy, said Carbondale City Manager Kevin Baity.

“The change is the city is prosecuting it versus the state’s attorney. By us prosecuting it as a city ordinance violation, the city attorney does the prosecution and the city retains all the fines,” Baity said. 

In both Carbondale and Springfield, officials could not immediately say Friday how much money the tickets had raised since the law changed.

But there is no denying issuing tickets for possession that carry proposed fines of between $100 and $500 would raise money for Chicago.

A Chicago Sun-Times analysis last year found that for every 10 misdemeanor marijuana cases that went to court in Cook County between 2006 and 2010, about nine cases were dropped.

The biggest share of dismissed cases involved possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, records show. Possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana is considered a misdemeanor.

Jack Riley, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in Chicago, said Friday that while he’s still against the decriminalization of drugs, the proposal could make sense for the City — if it means it will shift more manpower toward the larger drug problem.

The DEA has been working with Chicago police to attack a thriving drug market that’s fueling gang violence in a city that has seen a precipitous jump in murders since last year, he said.

“If they’re not being prosecuted and they’re not being cost effective, I would really like to see police officers not tied up,” Riley said.

From the DEA’s perspective, the battle over drugs in Chicago is on a much higher level.

“I am at war with the Mexican cartels,” Riley said.

Chicago’s drug market run by street gangs is directly tied to those cartels, which see the city as a hub for doing business and as a launching pad to deliver drugs throughout the country, he said.

That’s evidenced by a massive joint investigation led by the DEA that resulted in charges against the leaders of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel. Federal prosecutors allege that the cartel brought tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana into the country via Chicago.

“There’s no question that’s the priority of this agency,” Riley said. “If we’re wasting our resources at the lowest possession level, that means we’re not using our resources at the highest possible levels and eradicating organizations.”

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