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EDITORIAL: Plummeting marijuana arrests amount to good news for Chicago

| Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP

Not so long ago at all, the Chicago police arrested thousands of people each year for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

In 2011 alone, the police made more than 21,000 petty pot arrests.

Now, they’re arresting almost no one.


Last year in Chicago, the police made only 129 arrests and wrote fewer than 300 tickets for possession of small amounts of cannabis. Even fewer arrests and tickets are expected this year.

This, to our thinking, is a remarkable transformation in how Chicago handles drug offenses at the lowest possible rung — and a welcomed transformation.

We should be concerned about racial disparities in the small numbers of people still being arrested and ticketed for pot. As Frank Main of the Sun-Times recently reported, the great majority of those still being arrested are African-American men, though everybody knows the use of marijuana is common among Americans of all colors and backgrounds.

In 2017 and the first four months of 2018, 94 people were arrested in Chicago for petty marijuana possession. Seventy-six of them were black. Sixteen were Hispanic. Two were white.

The huge drop in the overall number of people charged with petty pot crimes is, all the same, good for Chicago. Especially because arrests for pot have always skewed unfairly toward minorities.

No longer are thousands of lives being turned upside down for a crime that, in the real world, hardly counts as a crime anymore.

It was once political suicide for a politician to suggest that marijuana should be decriminalized. Naysayers warned of “Reefer Madness” doom should the city even try. Yet, essentially, Chicago has done just that, without any evident negative fallout.

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On the upside, our courts are a little less clogged. The county jail is less crowded. Our police can devote more time and energy to more serious problems. A more enlightened legal approach to marijuana has contributed to a more sensitive approach to the opioid epidemic. And support is growing for a permanent statewide medical marijuana program.

All to the good.

A 2012 city ordinance gave police the option of writing tickets for possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana. A 2016 state law barred police from arresting anyone who possessed less than 10 grams of marijuana, making it a civil offense — like illegal parking — punishable only by fines.

But why are the few folks still being arrested for small amounts of pot predominantly black?

“The South Side and the West Side, which are primarily African-American, have more open-air drug markets,” Police Supt. Eddie Johnson explained. Yet, Johnson added, “It’s not lost on me, as an African-American man in the city, that the failed war on drugs incarcerated a lot of brown and black people.”

As long as the police make any arrests at all for petty pot offenses, that racial disparity shouldn’t sit easy with anybody.

But there’s no denying we’ve arrived at a better day.

The notion that our city once arrested more than 21,000 people a year just for possessing small amounts of pot strikes us now as a little ludicrous.

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