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Chicago decriminalized marijuana possession—but not for everyone

African-Americans account for almost eight of every ten low-level pot busts.

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The racial grass gap hasn't narrowed a bit.

Two years after Chicago moved to reform its marijuana laws, a two-tiered system of justice remains firmly in place: while low-level pot possession has essentially been decriminalized for residents of affluent neighborhoods, others are routinely stopped and cuffed in an ongoing crackdown in poor, minority areas.

The number of arrests for marijuana possession citywide has dropped to its lowest level in 12 years. But police continue to make an average of 44 arrests a day for misdemeanor possession, more than for any other offense.

And who's getting busted hasn't changed at all.

Though studies have found similar marijuana usage rates across racial groups, 78 percent of those arrested since August 2012 for carrying small amounts of pot were black, according to police department data. Another 17 percent were Hispanic, and just 4 percent were white—virtually the same breakdown as before the new possession ordinance went into effect.

The reformed pot law allows police to ticket people caught with less than 15 grams of marijuana instead of locking them up. But police have seldom issued the tickets, formally known as administrative notices of violation, or ANOVs. Just 1,725 marijuana-possession tickets were handed out between August 2012 and this February—while 20,844 arrests were made during the same period for possession of less than 15 grams.

And as with the arrests, most of the tickets—a whopping 70 percent—were issued to African-Americans. Another 18 percent went to Hispanics, while whites received 11 percent.

The figures were provided to the Reader through a request under the state's freedom of information act.

"This trend reflects the racial and ethnic disparities we see throughout the system—from the point of ticketing or arrest, through admissions to the Cook County Jail or the state's prison system," Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle said in a written statement. "These are concerns I raised directly with the Mayor, and it's his obligation to work to make this process more fair."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's press office did not respond to a request for comment. But a police spokesman says the department is making "continued progress" in moving toward a ticketing system.

"What the data shows is that some districts have implemented the ordinance much better than others," says spokesman Adam Collins. He says police brass continue to work with district commanders on making the ticketing policy a priority.

Police superintendent Garry McCarthy has previously insisted that police are issuing tickets when they can, and that by doing so officers have been freed to spend more time pursuing serious crimes and preventing violence. McCarthy notes that an arrest can take two officers off the street for two to four hours apiece.

However, veteran cops tell me that officers have little incentive to issue citations, because in reality they take as long to process as arrests. "It's a pain in the ass," says one police supervisor in a high-crime district.

More significantly, they say, police are making marijuana busts in black neighborhoods because they're under pressure to get dangerous gang members and drug dealers off the street by any legal means they can.

"You've got aldermen and other people demanding that we stop crime, but the only response we really have is to flood the area and stop everybody who walks down the street," says another longtime officer assigned to a troubled area. "The commander and the lieutenant say, 'Get the fuck over there and start beating the bushes and find out what's going on.' And this is what happens."

SOURCE: CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Source: Chicago Police Department

Chicago police stepped up their rate of drug busts during the gang wars of the 1980s and 1990s, but by the early 2000s the arrest tallies were on the decline. Marijuana was the exception. As special police units were sent into crime-ridden areas, misdemeanor possession arrest totals climbed through 2009 and 2010, when police hit a record with more than 23,000 each year.

When my colleague Ben Joravsky and I took a closer look in 2011, we found that only a segment of the city was seriously affected by the uptick in pot busts. In 2009 and 2010 African-Americans accounted for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those prosecuted, and 92 percent of those convicted for misdemeanor possession, leaving thousands with criminal records for doing something that routinely went unpunished in other parts of the city.

Moreover, the pot busts were devouring police resources: at least $78 million and 69,000 police hours a year.

A handful of elected officials called for policy changes. "I think we should decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, that's for sure," Preckwinkle told us. "The drug policies in this country are stupid and extraordinarily expensive."

Finally, in 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his support for a modest reform measure that gave police the option of issuing possession tickets.

The first draft of the legislation stressed that "a disproportionate number of these arrests are of minorities" and proposed "a conversation among experts in health and public safety fields to gather data and information."

But after violence surged during an unusually warm spring and early summer, the language about racial disparities was removed. Instead, the revised proposal declared that tickets "will free up precious police resources and may result in a more robust punitive and deterrent effect." Fines were set at $250 for a first offense and $500 for each one after that.

During City Council testimony, Superintendent McCarthy stressed that the measure was about helping police round up criminals and not about going easy on potheads. "We are not talking about decriminalization," he told aldermen. "We are talking about holding people accountable."

Alderman Willie Cochran, former narcotics cop: “The war on drugs has failed.” - JOHN H. WHITE/SUN-TIMES
  • John H. White/Sun-Times
  • Alderman Willie Cochran, former narcotics cop: “The war on drugs has failed.”

Still, a number of aldermen didn't stick to the script. "The war on drugs has failed," said Willie Cochran (20th), a former narcotics cop. He was at least the fourth alderman to make a similar assertion. Under current policies, Cochran added, "How many of us sitting here could have had a criminal history?"

The ordinance passed by a 43-3 vote.

The council's high hopes haven't all panned out.

On the upside, police are making fewer marijuana possession arrests altogether. In 2013, according to preliminary figures, cops racked up 15,924 total arrests for misdemeanor cannabis possession, defined as 30 grams or less. That's the lowest annual tally since 2002, when there were 15,398.

Yet even the reduced volume of busts is gobbling up enormous chunks of time and money. Misdemeanor marijuana possession remains the leading category of arrest in Chicago, and the 2013 lockups cost at least $23 million and 46,000 police hours, the equivalent of officers using 5,750 entire shifts to process low-level pot arrests.

Cops say the tickets aren't a viable alternative in most instances. For starters, they can't be issued to anyone caught in the act of smoking pot, or to anyone carrying it without identification, which leads to scores of arrests a week (the department didn't provide an exact number).

Officers are also skeptical that the tickets accomplish anything. Forty percent of those issued in 2013 have been blown off, according to city records.

Plus, the tickets just aren't efficient, some cops claim. For instance, officers have to run tests to make sure the suspected substance is actually marijuana, and the processing time is about as lengthy as for a full booking.

The result is that cops often don't bother dealing with small-time pot possessors at all. "Most of the time when you pick up somebody with a little weed on him, you're going to let him go," explains the supervising police officer.

But the equation is entirely different in African-American neighborhoods coping with violence.

Two years ago, facing a spike in shootings and murders, Superintendent McCarthy began launching several antiviolence initiatives that flooded high-crime areas with extra officers. Police patrolling these communities routinely practice a version of stop-and-frisk, though they stress that they abide by clear rules. By law, police are required to have a reason to formally stop and interview someone, though it doesn't take much—just "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity. If police suspect the person is armed or potentially threatening, they're allowed to conduct a pat-down.

The regular stops produce an increase in arrests, and the highest number are for low-level marijuana possession.

Of the 25 community areas with the highest marijuana arrest rates since the 2012 law was implemented, 22 were predominantly African-American, according to an analysis by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. The other three were majority Hispanic or black and Hispanic.

In nine of these neighborhoods, the rate of possession arrests actually went up after the new ordinance was put into effect. These areas include East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Humboldt Park on the west side and Fuller Park and Washington Heights on the south side.

"That's unfortunate," says Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), one of the first advocates for citywide decriminalization. "I know that in some of the high-crime areas there's a lot of pressure on the police, and they're trying to deal with it as they can. But it seems like to me and to members of the community that they have a number of reasons to arrest people besides marijuana, because there's so much other crime.

"That's always the fear in the black community—when the police do their jobs, that they overdo it. It's a delicate balance."

Police say there are good reasons to get some pot possessors off the street. Marijuana dealing remains a highly profitable business, and tension among competing sales operations can lead to violence. In custody, some lower-level dealers provide police with information that leads to violent traffickers or gang leaders.

Still, that's not always the case—especially when officers sent to saturate high-crime areas are rookies or only assigned there temporarily. "Guess who we end up stopping?" says the veteran officer. "The guy who's walking to the store for some soda pop, or a lady who turns out to be a nurse."

Or they're simply pot users or sellers who aren't tied to large-scale operations. Sending them into the criminal justice system can push them down a dangerous path while exacerbating tensions within the community.

"This is a giant vicious circle," says the veteran. "Do I want to be stopping everybody in these neighborhoods? Absolutely not. But the craziness almost dictates it."

The officers say no tweaks to the ticketing ordinance will solve the problems. The neighborhoods need economic alternatives to the drug trade. And both officers count themselves among the growing number of people who believe the government should oversee the cannabis business.

"Take it out of the hands of the criminals," says the veteran.

First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno believes it's time to consider legalizing marijuana. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno believes it's time to consider legalizing marijuana.

He won't get an argument from Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st).

"We all know the usage is pretty much even among different ethnicities," he says. "It doesn't seem that the intent of the ordinance is being acted out on the street."

Like the officers, Moreno believes it's time to consider legalizing marijuana, which he maintains is less harmful than alcohol (a position recently advocated by President Obama as well). "I think there's broad public support for it," Moreno says. "The City Council gets a lot of criticism, but on a number of issues we can move faster than the state or the federal government. It would be tough to pass, but I'd be more than happy to lead that effort."

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