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Lightfoot wants to stop impounding cars found with pot — and dramatically lower fines for public pot use

Even after pot is legalized, some use and possession will be prohibited. But the mayor plans to introduce an ordinance that will drastically lower the penalties.

A person smoking marijuana
The city is lowering fines for public pot use and will stop impounding cars found with weed inside.
AP

Arguing that Chicago’s cannabis enforcement laws have “disproportionately impacted” communities of color, Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to end the city’s practice of impounding vehicles found with marijuana inside and dramatically reduce fines for those caught using pot in public.

Even after Jan. 1, when adult use of pot is legalized statewide, people will continue to be fined for consuming marijuana in places where public use is not allowed or transporting unsealed cannabis in a vehicle or school bus.

But the new ground rules Lightfoot plans to introduce at Wednesday’s City Council meeting would establish a far more lenient approach to enforcement.

“For far too long, unjust and outdated cannabis enforcement laws have adversely and disproportionately affected Chicago’s black and brown neighborhoods,” Lightfoot said in a news release.

She argued that the legalization of recreational marijuana “presents a powerful opportunity” to reform those policies and “right these generation-old wrongs of the past.”

Currently, first-time offenders face fines ranging from $250 to $500 for “first-time minor offenses” involving up to 30 grams of weed and $500 for subsequent offenses within 30 days of the first citation. Chicago also has a so-called “zero tolerance” rule that requires police to impound vehicles found with any amount of cannabis inside.

Under the mayor’s proposal, first-time offenders would face a $50 fine, with subsequent offenses within 30 days triggering a $100 fine. In addition, marijuana offenders would no longer face vehicle impoundment.

“We’re just concerned about making certain that individuals don’t continue to be overly processed through the penal system for minor cannabis offenses,” said Paul Stewart, Lightfoot’s policy adviser and cannabis coordinator.

“We want to ensure that the overly aggressive drug enforcement policies of the past are modified in a way that we don’t have areas ... disproportionately impacted,” he said. “We want a less punitive option.”

The ordinance will also dramatically alter the Chicago Police Department’s “enforcement protocols” while still permitting officers to initiate investigations for “smoking or using cannabis in public places, in a vehicle and in places prohibited under the Smoke Free Illinois Act,” according to the mayor’s office.

Officers will be trained on “new protocols to lawfully conduct investigations and enforcement actions” for violations of the new law, as well as possession infractions, “including possession of unsealed cannabis in a vehicle, school, childcare facility or school bus,” the news release said.

Chicago Police Sgt. Mike Malinowski likened the shift to the enforcement changes prompted by the city’s decriminalization of marijuana in 2012 — which he called a “baby step” toward full-on legalization.

Should the City Council approve the mayor’s ordinance, rank-and-file officers will be trained on the enforcement changes before the end of the year, according to Malinowski, who said the department will soon treat cannabis more like alcohol.

“Officers just have to recognize situations where they will no longer issue citations,” Malinowski said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said he “expected some loosening of the regulations towards cannabis” to accompany the new state law.

“If 25 grams is legal, we should not be impounding someone’s car for 25 grams,” Ervin said.

“What we don’t want to create is a more onerous process on people that may tend to get stopped more than others. In the past, these were tools that were used to disenfranchise many members of our community. To lessen those burdens based on the state statute is proper.”

Ervin said high fines, vehicle impoundment and incarceration were “definitely used as a tool against African-Americans and Hispanics.”

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, lauded the mayor’s push to drop the city’s vehicle impoundment policy as “a wonderful thing” but remains concerned about how pot offenses will be policed in the future.

“It’s just a matter of being thoughtful about approaching these kinds of situations and finding ways to both monitor and address any bias that ends up reflected in the data about the way in which this ordinance is enforced,” he said.

The state could modify rules for public consumption of recreational pot during the current veto session in Springfield, while Chicago’s rules still haven’t been established. Until that happens, Yohnka said some of the most vulnerable residents won’t have a place to legally get high and could bear the brunt of the new enforcement rules.

On Tuesday, Stewart said the final ground rules for public consumption are still being finalized and will be introduced in the coming weeks.