Although minor marijuana possession has been considered a minor infraction for the past few years in Chicago, a recent investigation conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times found that the boys in blue have continued to take the average citizen to jail for this offense—doing the most damage inside African-American communities.
In 2011, a city decriminalization ordinance gave officers with the Chicago Police Department the ability to simply issue a ticket for small-time marijuana possession, rather than dragging an offender to jail and jamming up the criminal justice system. However, while the arrest rate for this offense has rolled back considerably since then, it seems that officers are still opting to come down hard on pot offenders living in black neighborhoods.
The Sun-Times found that African-Americans populate 18 of Chicago’s 20 communities with the highest arrest rates for minor pot possession, while 17 of the 20 account for most of the citations for this offense. The lowest rates of arrest and/or ticketing took place in white neighborhoods, according to the report.
Among the statistics to come festering out of the investigation: Chicago police have opted to arrest 4,600 people since 2013 for pot possession rather than issue a ticket. Eighty-nine percent of these folks were black, eight percent were Hispanic and only two percent were white.
Sadly, even with the decriminalization ordinance on the books, 70 percent of those convicted of marijuana possession ended up doing jail time.
However, this disparity is expected to change now that Governor Bruce Rauner has signed a bill that eliminates the criminal penalties associated with small time pot possession for the entire state. That’s because, unlike the Chicago ordinance, the new state law does not leave the issue of pot possession up to law enforcement “discretion.” As long as the person is caught in possession of less than 10 grams of weed, officers have no choice but to write them a ticket and send them on their way.
One Chicago cop told the Sun-Times that the higher ups have since told them not to make any arrests for marijuana possession unless the amount is around 100 grams—more than 3.5 ounces. However, the same officer did complain that decriminalization has crippled the department when it comes to combating major drug dealers because they no longer have the power to take people into custody and apply the pressure needed to get them to snitch.
A number of cities all across the nation—most recently Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee—are moving to pass marijuana decriminalization ordinances. Unfortunately, law enforcement groups have come out against the issue because they want police officers to have the freedom to exercise their own discretion over the offense. It is for this reason that the majority of local ordinances allow local police to refer to state law when it comes to dealing with pot offenders—a situation that creates the kind of racial disparity outlined in the Sun-Times report.
Illinois lawmakers could discuss the issue of creating a fully legal cannabis market sometime in 2017. State Senator Heather Steans, who was instrumental in the creation of the 2016 decriminalization bill, believes putting an end to prohibition is where the state “should be heading.”