RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Chicago's city council is taking up the issue of marijuana possession today. It will decide whether police can issue a ticket to adults caught with a small amount of the drug, rather than arresting them. As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, it's mostly a question of money, and how best to use police resources.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Under current Illinois law, anyone found with less than about an ounce of marijuana can be charged with a misdemeanor. If found guilty, they face up to a year in jail, and a $2,500 fine. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says after a ride with officers in the gang crimes unit, he knew there had to be a better alternative. Police said they spent too much time on the streets, and in courtrooms, over low-level marijuana cases that are dismissed nearly nine out of 10 times.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: Now, it's not decriminalization. It's dealing with it in a different way, with a different penalty. And I want police officers fighting the crimes that need to be fought.
CORLEY: Like going after the big drug dealers and gang bangers, he says, in a city where homicides have jumped 35 percent. Under the proposed change, a person 18 or older who's found with about a half-ounce or less, could get a ticket and go on their way - provided they have proper ID, and aren't wanted for another crime. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says without an ID, there'd be an arrest plus...
GARRY MCCARTHY: On school grounds, in parks, and where there is open smoking of marijuana, it will be a custodial arrest.
CORLEY: Those receiving tickets would face a 250 to $500 fine, but no criminal record or jail time. McCarthy says it will still hold people accountable, while not tying up his officers.
MCCARTHY: It takes an officer four hours to process and complete an arrest for marijuana.
CORLEY: The entire ticketing process, though, could take less than an hour. So if two officers in a beat car are making an arrest, double that four hours to eight hours. Chicago police make about 20,000 low-level, marijuana-possession arrests a year. So when you do the math, you can see how cumbersome a marijuana arrest can be. Alderman Danny Solis, who's sponsoring the proposal, says it would free up lots of officers.
DANNY SOLIS: Yes, marijuana is still bad; there's no way I can condone it. But I know that we're going to have these police officers in these violent neighborhoods and hopefully, that extra police man hours will be helping to save lives of young men and women.
CORLEY: In Alderman Jason Ervin's ward, there is a pervasive drug culture, and the violence that accompanies it. He thinks ticketing people is the wrong approach.
JASON ERVIN: I don't understand why you believe that this will not have an increase on demand if you're literall,y proposing a ticket versus an arrest.
KATHLEEN KANE WILLIS: Demand does not go up. Demand is not tied to criminal penalties.
CORLEY: Kathleen Kane Willis heads a drug policy consortium at Roosevelt University.
WILLIS: It's a misconception in the public's mind, that penalty structures influence demand. Demand trends are long and do not respond to what the penalties are.
CORLEY: A number of states and municipalities throughout the country have taken steps to turn possession of pot in small amounts from a criminal offense to a civil one, in large part because of resources. Willis notes the city's limit of about a half an ounce is on the low end of what other municipalities have set. Some on the council point out that since under current law, the vast majority of low-level pot cases are dismissed, the effort to issue tickets with fines actually creates a policy that has some teeth. Others say it just reeks - of common sense.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.