Less than two weeks ago, the Chicago Sun-Times first reported on a Chicago police officer's proposal to stop arresting people for small-time marijuana possession and instead issue them tickets. Within days, the mayor had endorsed the notion, and with talks between prosecutors and police set for this week, support for the idea has been nearly unanimous.
Wentworth District Chicago Police Sgt. Thomas Donegan studied court records of the more than 15,000 simple marijuana possession arrests in the city last year and found that in most cases, offenders were never even prosecuted. In 6,954 cases involving less than 2.5 grams, 94% were dropped; in 6,945 cases involving 2.5 to 10 grams, 81% were dropped; and in 1,261 cases involving between 10 and 30 grams, 52% were dropped, Donegan's investigation revealed.
The data prompted Sgt. Donegan to send a letter to Chicago Police Superintendent Philip Cline suggesting that the city quit wasting its resources on marijuana arrests that are not prosecuted and instead move to a scheme of ticketing and fining people caught with pot. Donegan suggested fines of up to $250 for 10 grams to up to $1,000 for 30 grams.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley responded quickly, telling reporters the next day he supported the notion. "It costs you a lot of money for police officers to go to court," he said. "You have to look at that proposal. Sometimes a fine is better than being thrown out of court," Daley said. "Thrown out of court means nothing. Many times the offenders don't even show up anyway." If 99% of the cases are all thrown out, and you have a police officer going -- why?," Daley said. "Why do we arrest the individual, seize the marijuana, go to court and they're all thrown out -- these credible arrests for marijuana? What does the court want us to do with these individuals?"
But the mayor was quick to point out that tickets and fines did not mean decriminalization. "It's decriminalized now," Daley argued. "They throw all the cases out. It doesn't mean anything. You just show up to court. Another case goes out. That's all it is. There's nothing there. They don't even show up -- the offenders. It doesn't mean anything."
The idea appears popular. The Chicago Tribune editorialized last week in favor of the idea, as did the Daily Southtown. The Chicago Sun-Times chipped in by running a letter from NORML senior policy analyst Paul Armentano, who called the idea "sensible," and an op-ed from MPP executive director Rob Kampia, who protested that the ticketing scheme is "a useful idea that doesn't go far enough."
Public opposition has so far been limited to one Republican alderman and the city's Fraternal Order of Police. While members of the police union stand to lose thousands of dollars in overtime pay if the city turns to ticketing instead of arresting marijuana users, FOP President Mark Donahue framed his opposition as a moral issue. Ticketing could send the wrong message to the youth, he argued. Even the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy could not manage to get too worked up over the ticketing scheme. In an interview with the Sun-Times, drug czar John Walters said ticketing could be a useful "tool," although he declined to either support or oppose the idea.
One group that might oppose a ticketing scheme could be the city's pot-smokers. Currently, they face a 94% likelihood of walking free if they get nailed smoking a joint. Under the ticketing plan, instead of a walk, they would get a $250 fine.