Chicago Starts Writing Tickets for Marijuana Possession

Published August 24, 2012

The City of Chicago has begun issuing tickets to persons found in possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The ordinance establishing the fines passed the City Council in August by a 44-3 vote and had the strong support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D).

Police will issue civil citations ranging from $250 to $500 instead of arresting and charging those caught with less than 15 grams of the drug. Although similar strategies elsewhere have been described as decriminalization, Emanuel told reporters, “It’s not decriminalization; it’s dealing with it in a different way and a different penalty.”

Among Many Fines Raised

Chicago’s precarious financial situation is no secret. The city has numerous speed and red-light cameras, and it recently increased tobacco taxes and fines for many ordinance infractions, ostensibly to improve public safety. The moves mean the city stands to collect new revenue, raising questions about the motivations behind the marijuana ticketing program.

Although current law calls for fines of up to $1,500 for minor marijuana offenses, the vast majority of cases are dropped and the cost of holding and trying these arrestees far exceeds any potential proceeds. Under the new civil citation plan, enforcement costs would be negligible and fines collected directly by the Chicago Department of Revenue.

Emanuel flatly denied any fiscal motive.

“It’s not about revenue, it’s about what [police officers] were doing with their time,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

Better Police Deployment

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy voiced his support for the ordinance. In discussions with city officials and reporters, he explained it takes an officer up to four hours to complete a marijuana arrest, whereas issuing a ticket takes only 30 minutes. With violent crime having escalated in Chicago this year, treating possession of small amounts of marijuana as a minor offense should enable the police to focus attention on more serious crimes, he said.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was skeptical Chicago would save much money through the new policy. He says only full legalization and a “vice-level” taxation regime can substantially aid public finances.

He did note, however, Chicago’s fines are much higher than in other places that have gone the ticket route.

High Fine Amount

“The threshold for the amount of cannabis that can be possessed is very low, at 15 grams, and the dollar amount quite high at $500,” St. Pierre said. “Fellow Midwest state Ohio has had 100 grams of cannabis decriminalized since 1978 at $100.”

The model decriminalization legislation proposed by the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization that advocates the policy nationwide, also calls for $100 fines.

St. Pierre says although some decriminalization measures, such as Seattle’s Initiative 75 in 2003, have dramatically reduced enforcement of minor marijuana offenses, such reductions do not necessarily follow. Even after a 30-year trend toward these policies, overall marijuana arrests continue to climb, he notes.

Ian Mason ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.