Since the city of Chicago and state of Illinois moved to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, the number of arrests in the city for such petty crimes has plummeted.
But even as the Chicago Police Department has pulled back on its enforcement efforts over the past seven years, African-Americans continue to be disproportionately targeted, accounting for the vast majority of the dwindling number of arrests, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.
Last year, Chicago police officers made 129 arrests and wrote fewer than 300 tickets for possession of small amounts of cannabis, and even fewer arrests and tickets are expected this year.
By comparison, there were more than 21,000 such arrests in 2011, according to arrest data examined by the Sun-Times.
The number of arrests began dropping after the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance in 2012 giving police officers the option of writing tickets to people for possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana.
Four years later, a new state law put additional limits on such arrests. Police in Illinois no longer could arrest anyone for having less than 10 grams of marijuana. Instead, the law made possession of small amounts of weed a civil offense, rather than a crime, with fines as the penalty, not jail.
Before the city council decriminalized possession of “personal-use” quantities of marijuana, African-Americans were arrested on such charges more than members of other racial groups.
That hasn’t changed, the Sun-Times found, even though academic studies have found that marijuana usage is similar across racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In 2017 and the first four months of 2018, 94 people were busted in Chicago for petty marijuana possession. Seventy-six of them were black. Sixteen were Hispanic. Two were white.
“I’m pleased to see the police are arresting fewer people,” says Kathie Kane-Willis, a drug policy researcher who is director of policy and advocacy for the Chicago Urban League. “It’s unfortunate that African-Americans remain criminalized for these activities out of proportion to their population.”
Kane-Willis says she had expected to see the numbers of arrests fall in Chicago, especially after the state decriminalized low-level possession in 2016, “but not to this level. I am a little surprised by it.”
The heaviest concentrations of such arrests were in minority communities — including the police department’s 11th District on the West Side, the 10th District on the Southwest Side and the Fourth District on the Southeast Side.
The downward slide in marijuana arrests is part of a larger trend that’s also seen arrests for possession of other illegal drugs in Chicago fall in recent years. But the decline in marijuana arrests is by far the most precipitous, according to police statistics.
“We’re focusing on violent offenders,” police Supt. Eddie Johnson says. “The point is to keep the city safe.”
“Going after low-level marijuana offenders is not part of our strategy,” according to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Guglielmi says drug distributors remain targets, pointing to the arrest last month of Jason Tanner, a 42-year-old California man accused of transporting 1,500 pounds of marijuana in a trailer attached to his pickup.
Asked about the racial disparities in cannabis arrests, Johnson says, “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.”
The superintendent says more black people are busted for marijuana possession because, “as a law enforcement agency, we go where the data tells us to go. The South Side and the West Side, which are primarily African-American, have more open-air drug markets.”
And those places are tied to violence, so those are key areas the police focus on, Johnson says.
Marijuana arrests in Chicago began to dwindle soon after the passage of the 2012 ordinance, which doesn’t apply to people caught with marijuana in parks or on school grounds or to those caught smoking in public.
Before it was passed, sponsoring Ald. Danny Solis (25th) said he hoped that being able to write a ticket for possession rather than going through the more time-consuming process of an arrest would allow police officers to be on the streets more, addressing more serious crimes.
Solis also predicted the city could reap more than $7 million a year from the new ticketing. But the city took in just $87,000 last year with so few tickets being written, records show.
Ticket revenue initially rose. That lasted through 2015. Since then, it has steadily dropped. From $65,000 in 2013, revenue from tickets for marijuana possession rose to $140,000 in 2014 and $327,000 in 2015 before dropping to $245,000 in 2016. So far this year, the city has collected $76,000.
The 2016 state law decriminalizing possession of less than 10 grams of cannabis made it an offense punishable by a fine of $100 to $200. Supporters said the law would save millions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs and, according to an Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council analysis, bring in $4.5 million or more in fines in the first three years of the law.
The Sun-Times was unable to determine the total amount of marijuana fines collected statewide, but it appears to have fallen far short of the projected windfall.
Those fines are supposed to be divided among agencies including law enforcement agencies, county clerks and prosecutors’ offices.
The Illinois appellate prosecutor, for instance, gets $10 from each marijuana fine paid. For the budget year ending June 30, 2017, that office got $43,000 through the Cannabis Control Act, according to the state comptroller’s office. For the year ending this June 30, the figure was $78,000.
The Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council had estimated the office would receive much more — an average of about $150,000 a year.
Beyond the city and state’s decriminalization of possession of small amounts of weed, some Illinois legislators are pushing to make it legal for anyone 21 or older to possess, cultivate and buy limited amounts of marijuana. In March, 68 percent of voters in a non-binding Cook County referendum cast ballots favoring legalization.
In New York City, as of Sept. 1, people with no criminal record will get a ticket instead of being arrested for lighting up publicly in New York City. That’s projected to result in 10,000 fewer arrests there in 2019.