Winds of Change: Is Chicago About to Stop Jailing Marijuana Users?

Facing a huge budget shortfall, Chicago may switch to issuing fines for marijuana.

 Last year, police in Chicago arrested more than 23,000 people for simple marijuana possession, 78% of them black. But those charges are routinely dropped by judges, and the head of the Cook County Board, who is facing a serious budget gap, wants the police to knock it off.

Facing a $315 million shortfall, Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced a 5% spending cut and threatened layoffs if necessary. Preckwinkle last week discussed the idea of merely ticketing pot smokers with Chicago Police Superintendant Garry McCarthy, and while no decision has yet been taken, the notion is percolating through the police bureaucracy.

"It's pretty well known within the criminal justice system that the judges will dismiss those charges involving very modest amounts of illicit drugs," Preckwinkle told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I suggested to McCarthy that although the law is pretty clear that such possession is a violation of the law, that since the judges routinely and almost universally dismiss such low-level drug charges that the police might stop arresting people for this since it clogs up our jail with these people and their cases will be dismissed out anyway."

This is hardly a unique foray into drug policy reform for Preckwinkle. She campaigned on a platform of less incarceration and more treatment, and just weeks ago, during an event marking the 40th anniversary of Nixon's declaration of a war on drugs, she denounced the drug war as failure.

A Chicago police spokeswoman, Maureen Biggane, told the Sun-Times McCarthy was considering Preckwinkle's suggestion. "At this time, the Chicago Police Department is reviewing the possibility of enforcement action other than physical arrest for certain cannabis offenses," she said.

By Saturday, McCarthy was telling the Chicago Tribune he was looking into issuing citations for people arrested for small-time pot possession instead of taking them to jail and booking them, but he was eager to point out that they would still be arrested.

"We will continue to make arrests for illegal behavior, whether it's public urination or whether it's carrying a firearm. It's really that simple," McCarthy said. "We're looking at different arrest processing, not not making the arrests."

It's not a done deal yet, McCarthy said. "It's not cooked yet," he said, but added, "I think that people are going to see some changes down the road."

He may face some opposition from within the ranks. According to the Chicago Reader, some high-ranking police officials don't want to give up the ability to use pot arrests to get "gang bangers" off the streets for a few hours.

Whether the cops' ability to make mass busts of "gang bangers" whose most serious offense is possessing marijuana will win out over the Second City's need to save money in a time of austerity remains to be seen, but the battle lines are being drawn right now.

Read more of Phillip S. Smith's work at the Drug War Chronicle.
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