Mayor Emanuel stands pat on pot | Bleader

Mayor Emanuel stands pat on pot


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Danny Solis
  • Danny Solis
A week after most of New York’s political heavyweights got behind a plan to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession, the sky still hasn't fallen. It hasn’t even gone dark from all the celebratory pot smoke.

As a matter of fact, while not all voters are high on the proposal, the politician who initiated it, Governor Andrew Cuomo, still has a 70 percent approval rating.

Cuomo and New York City officials say the move could keep thousands of nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system.

"This simple and fair change will help us redirect significant resources to the most serious criminals and crime problems,"� said Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney. "And, frankly, it's the right thing to do."�

New York isn't the only place where officials are openly discussing reforms to marijuana laws: Rhode Island is about to decriminalize possession, becoming the 15th state to do so, while voters in Colorado and Washington state will weigh in on legalization proposals this fall.

But around here silence is the preferred course, and it starts with the politician sitting atop the power structure, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"We are not ready to comment at this time," says mayoral spokeswoman Eve Rodriguez.

For a mayor fond of issuing statements and press releases, that's saying something. Something like: the mayor sees nothing to be gained from weighing in on a civil rights issue that could make him look flabby and liberal.

Cuomo has made a different calculation. While the New York legislature decriminalized the private possession of small amounts of pot in 1977, holding marijuana in plain view remained a criminal offense. For years NYC police have been working around the law by stopping hundreds of thousands of people and ordering them to empty their pockets. Naturally, those caught with pot were arrested for displaying it in public view.

Since almost nine of every ten people stopped were black or Latino, it's been a huge issue in communities Cuomo wants support from. His proposal would decriminalize the open possession of up to 25 grams.

Under Illinois law any kind of pot possession is a criminal offense, but Chicago police have long practiced their own version of stop and frisk: they approach those they deem suspicious to conduct a “field interview,” and in a remarkable number of instances the suspects abruptly throw baggies of pot to the ground. Attorneys call this scenario "the story"� or a "drop case," but whatever the name, it manages to remove the question of whether searching the subject was legal.

The result in Chicago has been similar to what's happened in New York: a grass gap in which African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession.

Last fall, as calls for reform here grew louder, Alderman Danny Solis (25th), an Emanuel ally, introduced a measure to City Council that would give police the option of issuing tickets for possession of ten grams or less. Though cops would still have the ability to make a full arrest, Solis argued that the law could help narrow racial disparities. Twenty-six other aldermen agreed to cosponsor the measure.

But little happens in this city if the mayor doesn't want it to, and drug reforms aren't on Emanuel's checklist. So Solis's proposal didn't go anywhere. In fact, most observers even saw it as an attempt by Emanuel to bogart the discussion—and hopefully snuff it out altogether. When the mayor was questioned about the idea at a press conference, he would only say that it needed more study.

That was several seasons and a NATO summit ago.

When I caught up with Solis the other day, he said he was "encouraged" by the news out of New York.

"That's exactly what I want," he says.

Maybe so, but Solis's proposal doesn't go nearly as far—marijuana possession would remain a criminal offense, and police would have even more latitude to enforce it differently from person to person.

Solis argues that it would still help. "We need more police on the streets dealing with gangs and violence, not doing paperwork and taking the time on things like this."�

The alderman also insists that he's not acting at Emanuel's behest. "The mayor isn't pulling the strings," he says. "The mayor didn't want me to introduce this at all."

Solis says he's so fired up that he'll try to move his proposal along in the next few weeks, even if the mayor's not enthusiastic.

We'll see about that, because the mayor is not enthusiastic.

If Emanuel's reticence weren't enough of a sign, police superintendent Garry McCarthy, a native New Yorker, has taken a few shots at the proposals there.

McCarthy says it's possible that police here could find "a different way of processing the arrest"� without hauling possessors into lockup. But he believes people caught with pot should have to face criminal charges.

There are certainly no signs of anything changing on the street. From January to May Chicago police made 8,960 arrests for low-level marijuana possession. That's more than 58 a day and an increase of four percent from a year ago.

These busts have cost taxpayers more than $22 million and 26,800 police hours, the equivalent of 30 full-time cops doing nothing for five months but arresting people for pot.

Meanwhile, Emanuel and McCarthy are scrambling to find more police to combat a spike in violence.

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