Study: Pot arrests likelier than fines – Chicago Tribune

Despite enacting legislation that is supposed to decriminalize carrying small amounts of marijuana, the city of Chicago and state of Illinois continue to have a high number of arrests related to the drug, a new university study has found.

In addition, because different municipalities have different laws and policies, the way the cases are handled is inconsistent and unfair, researchers said.

Arrests for the violation are down, but about 93 percent of misdemeanor marijuana possession violations resulted in arrest in Chicago, according to an analysis conducted by Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

That means that instead of issuing tickets and fines — considered an easier and more efficient process — police chose to take people to jail, said Kathleen Kane-Willis, the lead author of the study.

The study, which has not yet been published or peer-reviewed, found that the city and state have struggled to actually implement the rules despite having policies for tickets and fines on the books, she said.

“If we really want marijuana reform, we have to have a consistent policy across the state,” Kane-Willis said. “Otherwise people end up with different punishments, and the consequences cause more harm. This is not a good way to do policy.”

The team of scholars worked from 2012 through early this year examining arrest records and police data and analyzing the laws and ordinances of the state’s 102 municipalities to develop their report.

The study comes as many local cities and towns are looking for ways to cut police spending and generate new revenue. Chicago is struggling to decrease shootings, murders and reshape its national image from being a center for violence. The study is also being revealed at a time when there is a national conversation about ways to possibly legalize the popular drug.

In 2012, the Chicago City Council voted to implement a system of ticketing those caught with small amounts of marijuana and fine them rather than arrest them. The measure went into effect in August of that year. At the time, officials said the new law would generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city, while freeing police officers to handle more pressing criminal matters.

The law allows those caught with as much as 15 grams of pot to be ticketed for $250 to $500. Officers are prohibited from ticketing violators caught in parks, near schools or those caught smoking the drug. Police also have to arrest people who have an active arrest warrant or cannot produce valid identification.

Chicago police are making progress implementing the city’s cannabis ordinance, said Adam Collins, a spokesman for the department. There were about 5,000 fewer arrests involving low-level marijuana possession in 2013 than there were in 2011, the year before the ordinance was put in place, he said.

“Like any new process, it has taken time to implement the ordinance, and we believe there’s certainly much more work to be done on full implementation,” he said.

According to Chicago police, the majority of people arrested with marijuana eventually have their cases thrown out of court. But it takes police thousands of hours to make the arrests, fill out paperwork and attend court hearings. The department supports the initiative to ticket rather than arrest, authorities have said.

The arrests are also more of a hassle for violators, who are generally nonviolent, researchers said.

The majority of residents in the state support ticketing people caught with small amounts of marijuana according to polling data released this year, Kane-Willis said.

Punishment for getting caught with pot differs depending on where in Illinois you are, the study found.

For example, those caught in Evanston, Countryside or Champaign with a small amount of marijuana are likely to be ticketed. If they are caught in Chicago, Urbana or Yorkville, they are more likely to be arrested.

The number of marijuana possession arrests has fallen substantially since Chicago’s law went into effect, but much work remains, Kane-Willis said.

“(The decrease) is not a win,” she said. “I wouldn’t give our city or state a passing grade.”

Echoing past research, the new study also pointed to Chicago’s law as producing one of the nation’s highest racial disparities in marijuana-possession arrests.

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