An ordinance pushed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to make possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana punishable by ticketed fines will likely sail through city council tomorrow amid some concerns that the $250 to $500 tickets are too steep a levy against the low-income, black residents who are often targets of marijuana arrests.
Ald. Danny Solis (25th), the ordinance's sponsor, is not currently considering any amendments including changing the fine, according to Solis spokesman Stephen Stults.
At a public safety committee hearing last Thursday where the ordinance passed through to the full council 13-1, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) proposed a tiered system of fines so the first punishment would net the city $50 or $150, instead of $250.
Other Black Caucus aldermen, such as Roderick Sawyer (6th), suggested community service as an alternative to fines.
These ideas are not in the final legislation, but a separate proposal from Beale is: A city administrative hearings director could call for violators go to a drug awareness or drug education program.
The proposal also states that an administrative court could order offenders the opportunity to perform community service. But the community service is a component of the fine, and would not replace it.
In almost every aspect, the revised ordinance is modestly more punitive than Solis’s original bill, written in November. Provisions pushed by Ald. Ed Burke (14th) were added, dictating the continued arrests of all juveniles with marijuana as well as all citizens caught with pot on city park or school grounds.
Additionally, the ordinance erases language from the first bill that stated ticketing is needed because “African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested” for low-level pot possession. The new ordinance rationalizes ticketing as a way to free up police resources, and also as a vehicle to generate revenue toward anti-drug efforts. The altered language reflects a public campaign by Emanuel and Chicago Police Department head Garry McCarthy that the legislation will let police focus more on violent crimes.
Sawyer said he hopes adding the community service provision will eventually lead to a trade off where the city can give offenders the option to choose community service over a fine.
Sawyer nonetheless supports the current legislation. “Let’s just get this out of the way and work on more serious crime fighting problems,” Sawyer says.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), former chairman of the Chicago City Council Black Caucus, also backs the measure. Burnett argues that if you can afford to buy marijuana, you can afford to pay the ticket.
Sawyer and Burnett both want marijuana legalized: They each call Solis’s ordinance “a good start.”
Kathleen Kane-Willis, a Roosevelt University professor and director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, agrees that the ordinance is preferable to the status quo of arrests, even for low-income offenders that often see their cases dismissed in Cook County court: about 90 percent of all low-level possession cases are thrown out of court.
“The criminal consequences of even just the arrest are serious,” Kane-Willis says, noting that while employers are legally prohibited from using a criminal background against an applicant, past arrests can be used against someone who applies for public or private sector housing.
Data from Roosevelt University shows that CPD marijuana arrests significantly increased between 1999 and 2009, despite what Willis called “overwhelmed judges inundated with cases” who subsequently dismissed these arrests. The Roosevelt University data bolsters Emanuel and CPD’s contention that low-level marijuana arrests are a bad use of police resources.