The Chicago City Council committee on public safety voted 13-1 today for an ordinance pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to change possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil violation punishable by fine.
The committee hearing raised questions about how fines would be implemented, particularly if they might disproportionately hurt black residents in low-income neighborhoods who make up about 75 percent of the of Chicago Police Department's pot arrests.
“This will raise dollars on the backs of poor people,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) at the hearing. Dowell and other black caucus aldermen, such as Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), raised these concerns, but did not vote against the legislation.
Those ticketed would face $250 to $500 fines on their first offense, and a $500 fine for subsequent violations. Also, the person ticketed can face an additional $500 fine for either failing to pay their ticket or show up at a scheduled administrative hearing to contest the levy The city estimates that a modest amount of revenue, between $5 million to $9 million each year, will come from the tickets.
Under current Illinois law, the punishment for possession of 2 grams to 10 grams of marijuana is up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine. But Cook County courts dismiss about 85 percent of Chicago Police Department cases dealing with between 2 grams and 10 grams of pot, according to a Chicago Sun-Times investigation last November.
CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy testified in support of the ordinance at today's hearing.
McCarthy claimed that by not spending time on small marijuana possession arrests, police would be able to devote more of their attention to violent crime. McCarthy threw out an array of statistical estimates, such as a claim that 46,000 hours annually in police time would be saved by not processing certain marijuana arrests.
He and Ald. Danny Solis (25th), the ordinance's sponsor, also stressed that most marijuana arrests are dismissed. So, McCarthy argued, despite the change from a criminal to civil penalty, the city was not decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana but instead devising a better enforcement mechanism.
Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who voiced fears the ordinance will encourage kids to smoke marijuana, ran with this idea. “This is not the decriminalization of possession of cannabis but a re-criminalization,” Burke said at the hearing.
“If people think they can stroll down Michigan Avenue and smoke dope – that is just not the case. Enforcement is going to be more effective than it is today,” Burke added.
But Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) argued that enforcing fines could hurt the low-income, minority residents that are today’s subjects of pot arrests. “We’re talking about fining poor people in our communities,” Beale said at the hearing.
Beale wants a sizable portion of any revenue generated by the tickets to go toward drug education programs. Also, Beale pushed a “tiered system” of fines, where tickets start at possibly $50 instead of $250.
Beale, however, voted for the ordinance in the hopes that a tiered system might be implemented before the full council considers the legislation next Wednesday.
The lone ‘no’ vote was Ald. Nick Sposato (36th). Sposato repeatedly branded marijuana a gateway drug, stating he would only vote for the measure in full council if the maximum amount punishable by fine was lowered to five grams.
Kathie Kane-Willis, a Roosevelt University professor and director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, testified that ticketing low levels of pot is already done in 15 states and 90 other Illinois municipalities. A report by Willis found that pot ticketing has not correlated with increased drug use.