Similar policies exist in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as university towns like Champaign, Illinois, and Madison, Wisconsin. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty
People caught with with small amounts of marijuana in Chicago will be fined instead of arrested, after city lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to decriminalise minor incidents of drug possession.
The vote puts Chicago on a growing list of US states and major cities adopting similar measures.
Beginning on August 4, Chicago police will be granted the discretion to issue citations between $250 and $500 to individuals found in possession of 15g or less of marijuana. Police would still have the authority to arrest people caught smoking marijuana or carrying it on school or park grounds. Anyone under the age of 17 carrying marijuana or anyone believed to be selling the substance could also be arrested.
The law was proposed by mayor Rahm Emanuel and passed by a vote of 44 to three. Emanuel was forced to make several changes to his original proposal in order to appease aldermen who feared the reform would send an unwelcome message. The changes could allow authorities to force ticketed persons to take part in drug awareness or education programs, do community service or have their vehicle impounded.
Emanuel was supported in his proposal by the Chicago police superintendent, Gary McCarthy, who said the “vast majority” of low-level marijuana charges leading to arrests in the city – roughly 20,000 each year – are dropped. Emanuel has argued that the arrests can take up four hours for an officer to process, resulting in a waste of valuable time that police could devote to fighting serious crime.
According to a statement from the mayor’s office, each arrest involves approximately four officers – two arresting and two transporting officers – and places an additional burden on the Cook County court and jail system. Under the new law an officer could issue a citation and confiscate marijuana in about half an hour. Danny Solis, the alderman who sponsored the measure, estimated Chicago would receive $7m annual revenue as a result of the change.
Freeing up police manpower is crucial issue in Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, where murder statistics have outpaced US war casualties. With a murder rate that has spiked 50% since this time last year, the number of homicides in Chicago this year is higher than the number of US troops killed in Afghanistan in 2012. Indeed, while roughly 2,000 Americans have died since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, more than 5,000 people have been killed by gunfire in Chicago over the same period.
Low-level marijuana arrests in Chicago mirror statistics in other large cities, with black and Latino populations bearing the brunt of the punishment, despite a substantial body of evidence indicating white Americans – particularly young men–use and possess marijuana at equal and sometimes higher rates.
According to Chicago police statistics, of the 20,603 arrests last year for small amounts of marijuana, 15,862 were African American. Critics of draconian marijuana laws argue that when criminal penalties are enforced subjects are given records that make getting job, enrolling in higher education or applying for public housing more difficult. Such penalties reinforce poverty and hamper social mobility in the poor neighborhoods where they are disproportionately applied, they say.
The new law has elicited praise and concern from leading drug policy reform advocates.
“This is very much a step in the right direction but the devil is in the details” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the nonpartisan Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based non-profit.
Nadelman said the aldermen who voted for the law were “motivated by the right sorts of things”, such as re-allocating police resources, correcting racially disproportionate arrests and curtailing harmful arrest records. Nadelman added, however, that the fine proposed in the law could be onerous for some.
Additionally, Nadelman said: “The police still retain the ability to arrest. So you have that continuing threat that the cops will continue to arrest people and maybe do it in a racially disproportionate way.”
Nadelman also said the fact that Emanuel and McCarthy have refused to say the change does amounts to decriminalization is “not at all reassuring”.
Ultimately, he said: “Let’s see how it all plays out.”
Fifteen states have reduced the penalty for possession of limited amounts of marijuana. Similar policies exist in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as university towns like Champaign, Illinois, and Madison, Wisconsin. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, with the backing of NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, recently introduced a proposal that would have decriminalized open possession of 25g or less of marijuana. Republicans who control New York’s state assembly – all of whom are white and from rural or suburban districts – killed the governor’s plan.