Chicago Pot Law Relaxes Marijuana Penalties: 'The System is Broken,' Say Officials

Chicago's pot ordinance, passed Wednesday by the city council with a vote of 43-3, allows officers to write tickets for those caught with small amounts of marijuana. Mayor Rahm Emanuel also proposed a measure Thursday barring youth under 17 from the law- they would be arrested instead.

The Chicago pot law is designed to keep police officers focused on the more violent crimes in the city, as they have shot up 38 percent compared to last year. City council members were concerned that valuable police hours were being spent arresting 18,000 people for small pot possession- 97 percent of which went without convictions.

"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 told the Associated Press before the vote Wednesday. "I want those call to cease and the way we do that is to make sure our police are fighting violent crime."

Another alderman, Edward Burke, expressed his concern that the vast majority of those arrested for marijuana possession were African-American: only 1,000 of the 18,000 arrested were white.

"The system is broken … I also don't want it to be the case (that African-Americans) are going to be 16 times more likely to get locked up in the city of Chicago than some kid" who is from a prominent neighborhood, he said.

The new law takes effect Aug. 4, and people with less than 15 grams of pot, who are older than 17, have no prior convictions, and have "proper identification" at the time could avoid arrest. Instead, a ticket can be issued at the officer's discretion for $250-$500.

Ultimately, the law could save the Chicago Police Department over $1 million, and free up 45,000 police hours for officers to focus on other crimes. Despite the advantages, however, some are convinced that the law could encourage criminal behavior.

Chicago residents will "perceive and misinterpret the law, the new ordinance, that it is a license to be able to smoke marijuana in public," Ald. Roberto Maldonado, who voted against the law, said. Relaxing the original, more stringent laws- up to six months in jail and $1,500 in fines- could have acted as a deterrent for drug use.

"I strongly believe- and I hope that I'm wrong- that we're going to see a spike in the public use of marijuana in many of the corners of our neighborhoods, especially in my ward," he added.

However, while Mayor Emanuel acknowledged the issue of personal disagreement with the idea, he also promised to revisit the ordinance in the future after more information is made available.

"All of us have some internal conflict with what we're doing, for a host of different reasons," said Emanuel. "We're going to evaluate, is this the right thing to do? This is not closing the book, this is turning the page."

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