Emanuel proposes softer statewide penalties for drug offenses

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked state lawmakers Tuesday to soften Illinois’ war on drugs — letting non-violent offenders off the hook to free police officers to focus on more serious crimes — but the political response was luke-warm.

Emanuel wants the General Assembly to go beyond what he did in Chicago — with disappointing results — by decriminalizing possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana and reducing from a felony to a misdemeanor the penalty for possession one gram or less of any controlled substance.

“Thirteen other states already have laws on the books similar to what I’m proposing and there is no higher rate of drug [use] in these states as a result,” Emanuel said.

“It’s time to free up our resources for truly violent offenders who pose a bigger threat to the safety of our communities. It’s time to allow police officers throughout the state … to keep their focus where it’s needed most.”

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy added: “Studies show that locking people up for an ounce of narcotics does not dissuade them from using narcotics. It’s almost an exercise in futility.”

RELATED: Rauner open to softer pot rules

Some viewed Emanuel’s plan as a political ploy tailor-made to resurrect mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes shot down by the Legislature’s Black Caucus.

Others viewed it as yet another step toward the political left to undercut the progressive base of his mayoral challengers — no different than Emanuel’s recent proposals to raise the minimum wage and champion immigration reform and affordable housing.

“I don’t know if it’s political, but I’m glad he’s joining a vast majority of us,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), the highest-profile candidate to declare his candidacy for mayor.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis would take it a step further — by legalizing and taxing marijuana.

“If you look at Colorado in the first quarter, they generated $80 million. We need to tax it. It’s an important revenue source,” Lewis said.

Lewis withheld judgment on the mayor’s plan to make possession of one gram or less any controlled substance a misdemeanor. She said the proposal “needs more research” even though the war on drugs “has been a complete disaster.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) raised another potential roadblock: “regional and partisan” politics by lawmakers who “don’t want to go soft on crime.”

Emanuel countered by pointing to the “real narcotics challenges” confronting many affluent suburbs.

“What has traditionally been a city vs. suburb or Downstate [conflict] — you can break that difference right now given the challenges that are happening in Downstate and in the suburbs,” Emanuel said, pointing to the epidemic of heroin and methamphetamine use.

Republican State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a former narcotics prosecutor, noted that one DuPage County resident dies every eight days from a heroin or opiate overdose.

“One of my concerns is that, if you make it a misdemeanor for possession of heroin, it makes it easier for drug dealers to sell in smaller amounts. That way, they’ll carry less amounts,” he said.

Two years ago, an emotionally-torn City Council gave Chicago Police Officers the option to issue $250-to-$500 tickets to anyone caught in Chicago with 15 grams of marijuana or less instead of arresting them.

Up until fairly recently, pot tickets were a bit of a bust in Chicago.

Although police officers had the option of issuing tickets, too many did not, and continued to make arrests, particularly in black and Hispanic communities.

In July, the Police Department quietly made a policy change that was triggering 25 percent of marijuana arrests. It allows officers to ticket those who cannot produce a government-issued identification, provided that offender has another valid picture ID or can be identified through a police computer application.

Pot tickets were also incorporated into weekly Compstat sessions to put the heat on district commanders to issue more tickets. The result, according to City Hall, has been a slight uptick in the percentage of tickets issued compared to arrests and a narrowing of the racial gap.

Since Jan. 1, 23.4 percent of all enforcement for possession of small amounts of marijuana has been by ticket — with black, white and Hispanic ticketing almost even.

That’s compared to a 7-percent gap between tickets issued to black and white offenders in the two years since the ordinance took effect.

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