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Chicago’s pot dilemma: Should marijuana users just be ticketed?

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AHEAD IN THIS SERIES

Wednesday: Mexican cartels control the marijuana trade here.

Thursday: The “green rush” of medical marijuana affects Chicago.

Friday; Pot smokers and anti-drug activists speak out.

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Updated: December 2, 2011 8:01AM



Every pot smoker — the kid down the street, your neighbor with the nice house, the co-worker in the next cubicle — has a “guy.”

That guy has a guy, who has a guy, who has a guy.

The top marijuana guys — Mexico’s murderous drug cartels — are responsible for most of the pot sold on Chicago street corners. They’ve even started growing it in Wisconsin’s North Woods.

In recent years, another top “guy” has come to town: weed growers in Colorado and California licensed to supply the medical marijuana dispensaries operating in those states. They sell their surplus in Chicago and other places where the drug is illegal.

For those guys, Chicago is a dangerous place. They might wind up in prison, or even dead.

But their customers — dime-bag dealers and pot smokers — don’t have much to fear from the criminal justice system here. For them, weed has been essentially decriminalized, the Chicago Sun-Times has found.

Last year, Chicago Police officers arrested more than 23,000 people on misdemeanor marijuana charges, and most of those cases were dropped. From 2006 through 2010, cases for possession of less than 2.5 grams of marijuana were dismissed 97 percent of the time. Eighty-four percent of pot possession cases involving 2.5 grams to 10 grams were tossed out of court; and 57 percent involving 10 to 30 grams met the same end, according to the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

On Oct. 14, Cook County prosecutors did a spot check of marijuana cases at a branch court at Kedzie and Harrison. There were 15 new petty pot cases that came before the judge. Every case got dropped.

So far, there isn’t a politician proposing weaker penalties for the top marijuana guys. But local leaders and law-enforcement authorities are looking for a more practical punishment for the 100 to 150 people facing petty pot cases every day in Cook County.

Last week, several Chicago aldermen proposed an ordinance that would allow cops to write tickets to people caught with small amounts of pot. Behind the scenes, police and prosecutors have been quietly considering a similar solution.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S. — with more than 17 million regular users in 2010, a 20 percent jump over just three years, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

With so many pot smokers out there, proposals to lessen criminal penalties for minor marijuana possession are “a step in the right direction,” said Dan Linn, a regular pot smoker and head of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In Chicago the question remains: Is Mayor Rahm Emanuel willing to be the guy to take that step?

Daley raised eyebrows in 2004

The debate over decriminalizing pot in Chicago got serious attention in 2004. At a news conference, Mayor Richard M. Daley embraced Chicago Police Sgt. Tom Donegan’s idea to issue tickets for pot. The mayor pointed to research the sergeant gathered that showed most criminal charges involving petty marijuana possession were tossed out of the court system in 2002.

“Why do we arrest the individual, seize the marijuana, go to court and they’re all thrown out?” Daley said.

But critics quickly questioned whether society was ready for what seemed like a step toward all-out legalization.

The police union griped that officers would lose the overtime they earn from going to court on pot cases.

In the end, the debate went nowhere. The city didn’t start ticketing people for marijuana possession. Most misdemeanor pot charges continued to get dismissed.

Then in 2009, Daley did a political about-face.

He mocked a Cook County Board move to decriminalize small amounts of pot.

“Cigarette smoking is bad for you. Now all of a sudden, marijuana smoking is good for you,” Daley said. “Pretty soon, the headline will be, ‘Let’s bring cigarettes back.’ ”

‘Spinning our wheels’

More Americans than ever support legalizing marijuana, recent national polls show.

Although outright legalization does not seem likely in Illinois anytime soon, this year the General Assembly nearly passed a bill that would have made using marijuana for medicinal purposes legal.

Now, local officials seem more willing to consider decriminalizing marijuana, once a “third rail” of politics.

Last week, a group of aldermen, including Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Danny Solis (25th), as well as Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, a North Side Democrat, proposed allowing officers to issue a $200 ticket to anyone suspected of carrying up to 10 grams of marijuana. They pointed to the cost to the county’s legal system, estimated at $80 million a year. The aldermen said they plan to introduce a measure at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Mayor Emanuel’s response: “I want to have a comprehensive look at it before I make any decision.”

In recent months, police have been studying similar enforcement strategies that carry fines but no criminal charges.

Officers could give “administrative notices of violation” — similar to tickets issued for petty crimes like public urination — handled by a hearing officer. Or police could issue ordinance complaints that would be handled by a judge. Either way, the person would not be arrested, fingerprinted and booked.

“The goal is to reduce the processing time for minor possession of marijuana arrests, freeing up officers and keeping them in the field,” said Chicago Police Lt. Maureen Biggane, a police spokeswoman.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said she’s been exploring the way other cities like Boston and Philadelphia handle cases involving small amounts of pot.

“It seems like we’re spinning our wheels with these cases,” Alvarez said. “We’re looking to see if we can’t come up with a smarter policy to handle these offenses.”

It’s not uncommon for Chicagoans to have 10 or more misdemeanor marijuana arrests and never serve a day in jail, the Sun-Times has found. Terrell Reap, a 32-year-old South Side man, for instance, has been arrested 16 times for possession of marijuana since 1998. Fourteen cases were dismissed and he received court supervision for the other two, court records show.

Alvarez’s spokeswoman, Sally Daly, said there are many reasons for the high dismissal rates.

“Defendants don’t come to court; lab results aren’t ready and the judge won’t allow a continuance; and witnesses, including officers, aren’t coming in to court,” Daly said. “There may be a better solution for the system as a whole to have a more practical punishment like a ticket or a fee.”

Alvarez said she hopes to coordinate with the police department on any new strategy.

Already, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has publicly recommended that Chicago Police officers should stop making arrests for possession of small amounts of pot because of the cost to the county courts and jail system.

“We’ve treated drug use as a criminal justice issue rather than a public health issue, which it is,” Preckwinkle said.

But until there’s a change in the law, police Supt. Garry McCarthy said his officers will not stop making misdemeanor marijuana arrests.

The New York way

In New York City, where McCarthy was once a top police official, cops have been ticketing people for small amounts of pot for years.

Get caught there with less than 25 grams of marijuana and you’re generally cited with a petty offense that carries up to 15 days in jail and a $100 fine.

Typically, you would receive a criminal court summons directing them to plead guilty and pay a fine, or plead not guilty and go to court. With a summons, you’re not arrested. One exception: If you’re caught possessing a small amount of pot in public, such as smoking a joint in a park, you might get charged with a misdemeanor, which carries up to a year in jail.

Some Chicago suburbs, including Evanston, have laws that allow officers to write a ticket for minor pot possession. Cook County has a similar ordinance, too.

In 2009, Cook County commissioners passed a law giving county officers the choice of making a misdemeanor arrest or issuing a $200 ticket for possessing up to 10 grams of pot in unincorporated areas and forest preserves.

Commissioner Earlean Collins, whose son was arrested for possession of “half a joint,” proposed the measure.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart decided not to enforce the ordinance until his officers could write tickets in municipalities like Ford Heights, where they’re the primary law enforcement agency, said Frank Bilecki, a sheriff’s spokesman. A new law gives Dart’s officers that choice starting Nov. 7.

That’s when Dart plans to give officers the go-ahead to write those tickets, Bilecki said.

The move won’t bring in much extra revenue, though. Sheriff’s officials say they don’t make many petty pot arrests, so the $200 tickets won’t add up to much.

In Chicago, though, pot tickets could generate millions of dollars, proponents say. Linn, the lobbyist for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, supports the idea of the city generating revenue from pot. But he worries the city might create a system that would allow Chicago Police officers to write tickets to some people and arrest others on misdemeanor charges.

“I could see a white suburban kid would probably get the ticket where an urban minority youth would probably get arrested,” Linn said.

City sources said a two-tiered system is being considered because police want to have the flexibility of taking dangerous gang members off the street while ticketing people who don’t appear to be troublemakers.

Whatever Chicago’s proposed pot ordinance looks like, Linn said it could open the door for a larger debate on legalizing marijuana.

Outright legalization in the United States would drive down drug-related violence, because Mexican drug cartels would lose a multibillion-dollar underground market for their pot, Linn said, pointing to the decline of violence after the 21st Amendment lifted the prohibition on liquor in 1933.

The way he sees it, pot smokers wouldn’t need a guy who knows a guy who knows a dangerous underworld guy.



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