The City Council yesterday voted 44-3 to approve Mayor Emanuel’s proposed ordinance allowing Chicago police to issue tickets for possession of small amounts of marijuana. I voted to support the ordinance.
The new law, which goes into effect on August 4th, gives Chicago police the discretion to issue tickets between $250 to $500 for someone with 15 grams or less of marijuana. The police would continue to arrest those caught smoking marijuana or carrying it on park or school grounds. They also would arrest anyone younger than 17 who is caught with the drug or anyone they believe was engaged in selling it.
The current law simply isn’t working. According to Police Superintendent Gerry McCarthy, Chicago police make over 20,000 arrests a year for small amounts of marijuana and over ninety percent of those arrests are dismissed in court. Each arrest takes up to four hours of police time to process, time that could be better spent on the street addressing more serious crimes, such as gangs and gun violence. In contrast, issuing a ticket takes less than 30 minutes.
Of equal concern to me is the current law’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, especially African American men. African Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level marijuana possession–even though studies have shown that marijuana use is equal across racial lines.
Every day I hear from young African American men who are desperate for employment, but unable to secure a job because of a drug possession arrest record. This change in the law hopefully will reduce the number of minorities with arrest records that later serve as an impediment to employment.
Some have expressed concern that this change in the law will “send the wrong message” and encourage others to consume the drug. I have three responses to this. First, despite years of criminal enforcement, marijuana use has remained fairly constant. The existing laws clearly are not working
Second, the new law might actually serve as a greater deterrent. As I indicated above, ninety percent of those arrested never pay a fine or serve any time in jail, other than the brief detention they may endure upon their arrest. And as anyone who has received a citation for a moving violation or other offense can attest, the City is relentless in collecting fines. It is far more likely that those caught with small amounts of marijuana in their possession under the new law will actually pay a fine for their transgression.
Finally, studies across the world show consistently that reductions in criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana have had either little or no effect on the rate of use of the drug. According to a study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy:
“The available evidence indicates that the ‘decriminalization’ of marijuana possession had little or no impact on rates of use. Although rates of marijuana use increased in those U.S. states which reduced maximum penalties for possession to a fine, the prevalence of use increased at similar or higher rates in those states which retained more severe penalties. There were also no discernable [sic] impacts on the health care systems. On the other hand, the so-called ‘decriminalization’ measures did result in substantial savings in the criminal justice system.”
Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn has compiled a comprehensive list of studies on the topic of decriminalization of marijuana, all of which reach the same conclusion. To view those studies, visit his blog at:
I am happy to respond to any questions or concerns you may have about my vote on this issue. Please feel free to reply to this e-mail.