Chicago Could Ease Pot Laws

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to let cops issue tickets for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Will the move free up police to prevent more serious crimes? Elizabeth Brackett and her guests discuss the issue on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

A number of municipalities and jurisdictions throughout Illinois, including Springfield, Evanston and parts of Cook County, have within recent years opted to start ticketing for minor possession of marijuana. The argument: decriminalization frees up police enforcement while also ramping up revenue through fines.

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Chicago Tonight spoke with Springfield Deputy Chief of Criminal Investigations, Cliff Buscher, about how decriminalization of minor marijuana possession has worked in the state capital.

What was Springfield’s policy prior to decriminalizing minor possession of marijuana, and when did it change?

Prior to 2010, which was when things changed, everything was processed as a state charge, a criminal charge. In 2010, the Springfield City Council passed an ordinance that called for possession of less than 2.5 grams of cannabis to be considered a city ordinance violation. Those found in violation now are issued a ticket that has a court date and set fine. They either have the choice to pay the fine or go to the administrative court hearing to plead their case.

That said, it’s still up to the officers’ discretion. Officers can either, depending on the situation, choose to charge someone based on the city or state laws [where it’s still considered a criminal offense.] Ticketing saves time and keeps more police on the streets. Officers don’t have to take offenders down to jail for booking or fill out all the paperwork. And since most people just pay the fine, officers don’t have to go to the administrative hearings either. It also helps the public, too. If you get someone who makes a mistake--and the people caught are usually younger--they’re still charged, but it doesn’t go on their record.

How has the Springfield Police Department benefited from this?

We’ve been losing manpower. Our resources have gone down over the last few years because of budget cuts. The more we can keep officers on the streets, the better for us. When this ordinance was brought forth by the City Council, the intent was not to decriminalize cannabis possession, but to give the city an option to go through city ordnance violations. Possession is still punished, but not on a criminal level. The by-product helps us. We don’t have to transport the offenders down to jail or fill out all the booking sheets and police reports. Or, in the case that the state’s attorney did decide to prosecute, the officers don’t have to sit in court for a few hours. With the city ordinance, you’ve reduced what used to be a  two-and-a-half hour process to 30 minutes.

Do you know what percentage of the cases actually went to trial through the State’s Attorney’s office?

There were a lot that were dropped. I don’t want to put words in the state’s attorney’s mouth. They do have a big backlog of case, and a lot of the time they chose not to prosecute the small possession cases because they had too much going on.

One of the big arguments against decriminalizing minor possession is that more people will take up smoking. Is that a misconception or something you’ve found to be true?

We just enforce the law. I think the way this is now, it’s effective. It’s not like people are getting away with it. It’s a different format. In 2009, before the ordinance violations, we had 343 arrests for possessing less than 2.5 grams of cannabis. In 2010, after we passed the ordinance, we had 368 ordinance violations issued for possession of less than 2.5 grams of cannabis and 133 arrests. And in 2011, we had 348 ordinance violations and 98 arrests. As long as the City Council has something on the books for us to enforce, we’re going to use those laws.

You mentioned that the ordinance helps the public, in that a violation doesn’t go on a permanent record. Can you explain that a little?

That’s why I think the way the city did it works. If these people do get caught with small amounts, it goes through city ordinance violation court. There’s nothing on their record. They hopefully learn their lesson and don’t do it again, and their career and education prospects aren’t ruined.

But like you said, people can still be arrested for minor possession?

We’re issuing more ordinance violations, but we’re still making arrests for repeat offenders. Not everyone goes through the ordinance court. Officers are issuing more ordinance violations than making arrests, yes. It’s a huge time-saver on our part, but it’s also to their discretion.

Should pot possession violators get a ticket or go to jail? Post your comments below or sound off on our discussion board!

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