Aldermen want to know why pot tickets are a bust

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Chicago’s most powerful aldermen want to know why a two-year-old ordinance that empowered Chicago Police officers to issue tickets for small amounts of marijuana has been a bit of a bust.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Police Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th),  Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) demanded City Council hearings into the disappointing results.

“While the Police Department has clearly made great strides in implementing this law by logging fewer arrests for low levels of cannabis possession, I believe the City Council deserves to see all of the statistics firsthand and determine if we have successfully undertaken what the legislation intended, ” Burke was quoted as saying in a news release.

Solis championed the ordinance in hopes it would put police officers on the street for thousands of additional hours to fight more serious crime. He was also hoping to avoid saddling black and Hispanic young people with arrest records that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

On Wednesday, the alderman acknowledged that the results have been slower than he expected.

But he also gave the Chicago Sun-Times a copy of the fact sheet distributed to state lawmakers in late September when Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked the General Assembly to soften Illinois’ war on drugs — by issuing pot tickets statewide and reducing from a felony to a misdemeanor the penalty for possession of 1 gram or less of any controlled substance.

The City Hall fact sheet claimed that: arrests for small amounts of marijuana were down 39 percent during the first six months of this year compared to the same period in 2012; there were 5,000 fewer arrests in 2013 than there were in 2011 and that 4,100 pot tickets have been issued “in lieu of physical arrest” since the new law took effect. It further claimed that an “arrest rate” that was 94.1 percent during the first six months of implementation had dropped to 68.4 percent in July and August.

“We’ve improved….There’s always more to be done, but there’s progress and it’s significant and 2014 is a very significant change from where we started in 2012,” Solis said Wednesday.

“I want the hearings so that the rest of the City Council knows and the public knows about it…. We haven’t done a good enough job in getting the information out.”

Emanuel said he has no problem with the City Council holding hearings on pot tickets.

“There should be a hearing and transparency of information and they’ll do that,” the mayor said Wednesday.

Asked whether he believes the highly touted ordinance has delivered, the mayor said, “We’ve made changes … to refurbish so that the re-calibration properly reflects the intent. That’s about three months ago. They have to constantly monitor and make sure. I want more police officers on the street, less officers arresting for minor possession of marijuana and I don’t think it’s an accident that New York just adopted what Chicago did.”

Last year, the Sun-Times reported that Chicago Police officers were ignoring the ticketing option in droves and continuing to make arrests. Other media outlets have documented those same disappointing results. Black and Hispanic aldermen have complained for months that minorities were being arrested at dramatically higher rates than whites.

More recently, Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy have insisted that the racial gap was all but eliminated by dropping the requirement that offenders produce a government-issued ID to avoid arrest and qualify for pot tickets.

Beale apparently doesn’t buy it.

“We should revisit this issue to also learn if any disparity exists in neighborhoods as to where tickets are being issued and where arrests are still being made. It is important to determine if this law is being equitably enforced,” Beale was quoted as saying.

In their news release, the three aldermen pointed to a report issued earlier this year by Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. It concluded that violators caught with small amounts of marijuana were still more likely to be arrested in Chicago than in other cities with similar laws. That includes Evanston, Countryside and Champaign.

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