New pot law hasn't ended grass gap

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Police discovered a large field of marijuana on the far south side this week, but didnt ask us to help get rid of it
  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
  • Police discovered a large field of marijuana on the far south side this week, but didn't ask us to help get rid of it

Marijuana isn't legal in Chicago. Police presented the latest evidence of this earlier this week, when they announced plans to destroy $10 million worth of crops discovered in an industrial area on the far south side. The public was not invited to the burning.

But for small-time pot users in nice neighborhoods, police have quietly—and unofficially—been experimenting with decriminalizing marijuana since midsummer.

That's the net effect of the first six weeks of the city's new cannabis possession law, which was supposed to encourage police to issue tickets to those caught with 15 grams or less rather than making full arrests.

It hasn't exactly worked that way.

From the law's implementation on August 4 through mid-September, police issued just 135 tickets for low-level possession—while making ten times as many arrests, according to data from the police and administrative hearings departments. The vast majority of the arrests came in high-crime, predominantly black parts of the west and south sides.

Yet the total number of misdemeanor possession busts (1,460) was down nearly 40 percent from the same period a year ago. And all marijuana-related busts, from carrying joints to growing plants to dealing, has dropped by a third.

It's all because the new law isn't really working as it was supposed to. Or is it?

"'Muddled' is a very good word for what we've got now," says one veteran officer.

Here's what appears to be going on.

For the first half of the year, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy touted a crackdown on gangs and drug operations, police were arresting people for pot at a faster pace than a year ago. But as shootings and murders spiked, officials found it difficult to justify the cost and police time used to round up guys with dime bags.

Still, when they passed the new ordinance this summer, the mayor, police chief, and nervous aldermen vowed that they weren't going soft. They claimed the reverse was true: the ticketing policy would actually be so efficient that it would help police hold more potheads accountable. As City Council dean Ed Burke put it: "This is not decriminalization—this is recriminalization."

But to rank-and-file cops, it's simply been an annoyance. On July 25 police brass issued a seven-page set of procedures governing the new "Alternative Cannabis Enforcement Program." The rules covered everything from writing up violation notices to testing the suspected pot with portable kits to writing up reports on the testing. There was also a long, detailed list of instances in which the ticketing policy doesn't apply, such as when the offenders are kids, don't have identification, or are nabbed on park or school grounds.

At the same time, the procedures stated that when police officers want to make an arrest, they have to justify it. If the offender "is taken into custody for possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis, the arresting officer will be prompted and required to indicate the aggravating factors on the Arrest Report."

That left lots of police officers wondering: why bother? The instructions are "insanely long," says the veteran. "I just really think it's a lot of work for what we're getting."

Adds another veteran cop: "It's a pain in the ass, the guys don't like it, and it's easier to just lock people up."

The numbers suggest that at first some officers tried the ticketing process. In the first week of the new policy, 27 tickets were issued citywide. By week six, though, the number had fallen to eight.

Meanwhile, the arrests kept coming in the usual places—lots of arrests. The Third District on the south side and the 11th and 15th on the west side have each averaged more than two arrests for misdemeanor possession a day.

In fact, while total marijuana-related busts are down citywide this year, they've actually edged up on the west side, in parts of the south side, and in Rogers Park up north.

The grass gap remains.

The second veteran cop says that's because most of the guys picked up on the south and west sides aren't carrying identification and are likely involved in dealing or gangs.

On the other hand, "if the person has an ID, guys are just saying fuck it."

So that's the upside: not including the tickets, 695 fewer people have been pulled into the criminal court system on marijuana charges than at this point in 2011. Conservatively, the slowdown has saved at least $2 million and 2,100 police hours so far.

It just hasn't affected everyone the same way, leaving us with an evolving but still multilayered set of rules.

"Just drop the whole law," says the first veteran officer. And he's not just talking about the city's ordinance—he means the whole set of federal and state laws prohibiting marijuana. What's currently on the books, he says, "is just a halfway point. If the effort is to get rid of the law, just do it."

UPDATE: Some readers have asked to see some of the raw data. You can do so by clicking here. Those who dive in will note that in addition to the increases in pot busts in the places I flagged, there appears to be a significant jump in the Lakeview area. That would suggest that it's not just African-Americans on the south and west sides who've been busted. However, those figures come out of two police districts that recently merged, so I'm not sure how solid they are. We'll keep a close watch as the year goes on.

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