Four years after the Chicago City Council decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, African-American neighborhoods continue to bear the brunt of enforcement, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.
As anticipated, the Chicago Police Department is making a fraction of the arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession it made in 2011 — the last full year before cops were given the option of ticketing, rather than locking up, people caught with about half an ounce or less.
But 18 of the city’s 20 community areas with the highest rates of pot possession arrests and 17 of the 20 with the highest rates of ticketing are majority African-American, city records show.
Twelve of the 20 neighborhoods with the lowest rates are mostly white. The others are predominantly Hispanic or don’t have a majority population group.
That’s all despite the fact that academic studies have found marijuana usage is similar across racial and ethnic boundaries.
Among the Sun-Times’ other findings:
• Largely black East Garfield Park on the West Side has the highest rate of arrests and ticketing for misdemeanor possession — 72 times greater than in predominantly white Edison Park, which ranks lowest.
• The 19 blocks with the most arrests for marijuana possession are all on the West Side, and the 20th is on the South Side — all in African-American neighborhoods.
• Among the 20 blocks where the most tickets have been issued for misdemeanor possession, 11 are on the West Side, seven are on the South Side, and two are on the North Side.
• Since August 2012, the 5100 block of West Madison Street in Austin has seen more arrests (362) and tickets (91) for pot possession than any other single block in Chicago. That’s the result of police flooding that block in response to concerns about violence between factions of two street gangs, according to a West Side police supervisor.
• Since 2013, more than 4,600 of those the police chose to arrest, rather than ticket, have been convicted — and 89 percent of them were black, 8 percent Hispanic and 2 percent white, court records show.
• Even with decriminalization, seven of every 10 convicted of having small amounts of marijuana ended up doing jail time.
• Through the first four months of this year alone, 72 misdemeanor possession cases resulted in a jail sentence. During that same period, lawmakers were debating and passing legislation in Springfield to lessen marijuana penalties statewide. The measure was signed into law last month by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
• Among those arrested was a 21-year-old man the police said they caught with only the burnt end of a single joint. Its estimated street value: just $2. The police said they pulled the man over after he rolled through a stop sign in West Garfield Park. They impounded his car, and he spent two days in jail before going in front of a judge and pleading guilty.
The new state law, which took effect at the end of July, is aimed at addressing such disparities, says state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, its chief sponsor. Police statewide will no longer have the option of making an arrest for possession of less than 10 grams, which is about a third of an ounce.
“It really does allow us to focus our attention where problems really are,” says Steans, who says she hopes the change will free police to spend time instead on more serious offenses and on crime prevention.
But some Chicago cops say decriminalization has taken away a tool they’ve used to combat street dealing and press suspected gang members for information.
“It was an easy way to get access to these guys,” says a veteran officer who often works on the West Side. “You have to be able to hold something over somebody’s head. That’s just the way it works. It doesn’t sound right, but it’s a fact of life.”
The officer, who spoke on the condition he not be named, says cops in Chicago have now been told not to make arrests for marijuana possession unless the quantity involved is at least 100 grams — more than 3.5 ounces.
The rate of both arrests and ticketing has plummeted since the court-ordered release last November of police dashcam video showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald shot to death by a Chicago cop, Officer Jason Van Dyke, who’s now charged with first-degree murder.
In 2015, the department issued about 7,000 tickets for marijuana possession. This year, through April, the number was just over 1,200 — on pace for 3,700 by year’s end.
That reflects a trend across the nation of moving away from the “broken-windows” policing strategy, which called for making street stops and busts for even minor infractions in hopes that would also help prevent more serious crimes.
According to some officers interviewed, that’s one reason crime has risen in Chicago and other cities over the past year. One longtime police supervisor says it’s also confusing. “After 30 years on the job, I don’t understand how to enforce the laws any more,” he says.
In recent years, the police suspected that many of those they busted for possession were dealing but couldn’t prove it, he says: “The officer doesn’t hear the conversation between the person allegedly selling and the buyer. So it’s a possession case. And possession is now not a crime.”
Most of those convicted of low-level marijuana possession in Chicago since 2012 had been arrested before, court and police records show.
For example, that 21-year-old who was arrested on the West Side with just the burnt end of a joint? He’d previously gotten probation for a drug charge and has a case from 2013 pending for possession of an illegal gun.
In another case, a 27-year-old man was pulled over in March 2014 for driving through a stop sign in West Humboldt Park. His driver’s license was suspended, and police searched him and said they found four baggies with marijuana they estimated were worth only $40 total. But all were labeled with blue stars or green dollar signs — apparently denoting sales brands, according to the police.
He spent five days in the Cook County Jail before pleading guilty and being released. A year later, he was arrested and convicted again for marijuana possession. Altogether since 2004, the same man has been charged with marijuana possession or soliciting drug business 27 times, and he’s been convicted five times.
Richard Dickinson, a Chicago defense lawyer, sees the handling of marijuana-possession cases as a sign of how policing went wrong years ago.
“They’re nickel-and-dime cases that police use to conduct what would otherwise be illegal searches and seizures,” Dickinson says. “It’s a law enforcement tool to do investigations they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
He started out as a lawyer four decades ago. Back then, he says, if police caught someone with a joint, “They confiscated it and told the person to go home.”
With the advent of broken-windows policing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, possession arrests soared, police data show.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) says police in his West Side ward often make arrests to disrupt open-air drug markets that can be “catalysts” for violence.
“But they have to do so lawfully,” says Taliaferro, a former police officer. “And that means without profiling.”
Taliaferro says he supports the use of tickets whenever possible because they usually don’t take cops off the street as long as arrests.
It’s unclear how effective ticketing statewide will be. So far in Chicago:
• Just 1 percent of the marijuana possession tickets issued have resulted in full payments of fines of $250 or $500. Another 24 percent have yielded partial payments, sometimes as low as a few dollars. About 29 percent of the tickets were dismissed or dropped. And the other tickets — thousands of them — have been blown off or remain in limbo.
• Beside lessening the burden on police and the courts, ticketing people for misdemeanor possession also was touted as a source of revenue. But fines have brought in a total of less than $679,000 in four years.
Marijuana has been legalized for recreational use in four states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska — as well as the District of Columbia. In November, voters will be asked to sign off on legalization in five more states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.
Steans says Illinois lawmakers are watching states with legal marijuana. “I do think that’s the direction we should be heading,” she says.
Click here to see detailed data for all Chicago neighborhoods.
Click here to see the top blocks for arrests and tickets.
Contributing: Data Reporting Lab editor Darnell Little