Chicago's city council on Wednesday passed an ordinance that allows police to ticket people found with small amounts of marijuana instead of arresting them, saying aldermen had to do something to keep officers on the street where they can combat the surging homicide rate and not be tied up for hours doing paperwork.
The 43-3 vote in favor of the ordinance, which allows officers to write a ticket for $250 to $500 for possessing as much as 15 grams of marijuana or about 15 marijuana cigarettes, was expected after a council committee voted 13-1 last week to approve the measure.
But aldermen still debated about two hours before passing the ordinance, with many saying they were not comfortable with a measure that could be seen as sending a message that they are condoning drug use. Others said they needed to act to protect an increasingly nervous city where homicides are up 38 percent this year compared to the same period last year.
"The calls I get at 2 o'clock in the morning are not about marijuana possession, they're about someone who's been shot in my ward," Alderman Will Burns said before the council voted Wednesday. "I want those calls to cease, and the way we do that is to make sure our police are fighting violent crime."
Alderman Edward Burke, a former police officer, said he was concerned about what the ordinance, which goes into effect Aug. 4, would say to the city's youth. However, he said he was more troubled by the fact that only 1,000 of the 20,603 people arrested for small amounts of marijuana in the city last year were white compared to 15,862 blacks.
"The system is broken but just as I don't want to send the wrong message to kids, I also don't want it to be the case (that blacks) are going to be 16 times more likely to get locked up in the city of Chicago than some kid" from predominantly white neighborhoods, Burke said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who along with Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy came out in favor of the ordinance earlier this month, said the current law is actually sending a far more dangerous "message" to children.
"I cannot think of a thing that's more undermining to a message to a child than everybody knowing that 90 percent of the cases are thrown out," Emanuel told the council after the vote.
McCarthy said in a statement earlier this month that the arrests of more than 18,000 people for misdemeanor possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana "tied up more than 45,000 police hours" and that the "new ordinance nearly cuts that time in half ... freeing up cops to address more serious crime."
Other states are starting to relax their marijuana possession laws. This month alone, governors in Rhode Island and New York moved toward decriminalization of small amounts of the drug. Of the 8,625 misdemeanor marijuana cases between 2006 and 2010 in Cook County, about 87 percent were dismissed, according to statistics from the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court.
In Chicago, the debate has been going on for several months. Alderman Danny Solis introduced a similar ordinance in November. He focused much of his argument then on his estimate that the tickets given for marijuana possession would bring in as much as $7 million a year in revenue to the financially strapped city.
Solis said Wednesday that such an ordinance would mean poor neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides would not have police officers go missing for hours at a time to do paperwork, as they do now when they arrest people for small amounts of marijuana.
He said cutting the time that officers spend making those arrests adds up to 2,500 more "police days" that officers will be on the street.
"This ordinance is going to have a definite impact on the safety of our community," Solis said.