Chicago City Council passes pot possession ticket ordinance
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org June 27, 2012 1:10PM
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Updated: July 29, 2012 5:02PM
Most people caught in Chicago with small amounts of marijuana will be slapped with tickets instead of being carted off to jail, beginning Aug. 4, thanks to a groundbreaking ordinance approved Wednesday by an emotionally torn City Council.
Forced to choose between their desire to get more police officers on the street to stop a 38-percent spike in homicides and their fears about sending the wrong message to kids, it wasn’t even close.
The vote was 43-to-3 in favor of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to issue $250 to $500 pot tickets.
“The calls I get at 2 o’clock in the morning are not about marijuana possession. They’re about someone who’s been shot in my ward. I want those calls to cease. The way we do that is to make sure our police are fighting violent crime and free up their time to deal with those issues,” said Ald. Will Burns (4th).
The three “no” votes were cast by Aldermen Lona Lane (18th), Roberto Maldonado (26th) and Nick Sposato (36th).
Lane’s beef was with the 15-gram threshold for issuing pot tickets. That’s enough marijuana to make 30 joints.
“If four or five people are standing on a corner with 15 grams apiece, that’s not possession. To me, it’s selling,” she said.
Maldonado said he’s concerned about sending the wrong message to his three young children, ages 3, 6 and 11.
“I strongly believe — and I hope I’m wrong — that we’re gonna see a spike in public use of marijuana,” Maldonado said.
“You know who will see them [smoking in public]? Children like my three children. I don’t want my kids to grow up and think it’s OK to possess marijuana.”
Sposato said he has talked to police officers who believe the time saved by ticketing instead of arresting people would be negligible and not worth the potential downside.
“What message are we sending to our kids by telling them it’s OK to use drugs?” he said.
Emanuel said he understands the gut-wrenching nature of the debate and, therefore, did not pressure aldermen to vote his way.
But, he had a message for those concerned about sending the wrong message to kids about a drug that, some experts view as a gateway to more serious substances.
“The very thing that you’re worried about exists today. ... I cannot think of a thing that’s more undermining to a message to a child than everybody knowing that 90 percent of the cases are thrown out. … There is no penalty associated with marijuana,” he said.
As for those who claim his motive is revenue, just as it was with speed cameras, the mayor said, “The only revenue I’m interested in [is], I don’t want to be paying a police officer time-and-a-half to sit in a courtroom for four hours on something that ... will be thrown out. ... I want them on the street dealing with gang-bangers and gun violence.”
Starting Aug. 4, Chicago Police officers will have the option to issue $250 to $500 tickets to anyone caught in Chicago with 15 grams of marijuana or less. The maximum $500 fine would be assessed against anyone slapped with a second citation within a 30-day period.
That’s in lieu of arrest and a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine.
But not everyone will qualify for the more lenient treatment.
Anyone caught “openly smoking” pot in Chicago — or in possession of it on the grounds of a school or a park — would continue to be arrested. Young people under 17 and people of all ages without “proper identification” would also continue to face arrest.
Ticketed offenders will have seven days to either pay the fine or request an administrative hearing. Failure to show at an administrative hearing will result in a default judgment with the fine automatically reverting to $500.
City hearing officers will have the option of ordering community service and drug education classes as a component of any penalty imposed.
Ald. Danny Solis (25th), chief sponsor of the ordinance, estimated that the ticketing plan would put police officers on the street for the equivalent of 2,500 additional eight-hour days.
With minorities bearing the brunt of marijuana arrests over the last decade, Solis further argued that it’s unfair to saddle young people with a criminal record that could haunt them for years.
Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) was the first to express skepticism about the mayor’s ordinance. But, he was turned around after learning that, of the 20,603 arrests last year for small amounts of marijuana, 15,862 were African American.
The foster father of an African American cocaine baby who is now a teenager, Burke said, “Just as I don’t want to send the wrong message to kids, I also don’t want it to be the case that young Walter or young Travis [his foster son] is 16 times more likely to be locked up than some kid from Sauganash or Beverly.”