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Is It Time To Rethink Marijuana Laws?

Records show most busts are for a relatively small amount of marijuana. Should local leaders consider decriminalizing?

With a growing chorus of Chicago and Cook County officials calling for legislation that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana — and Evanston actually — is it time to start the conversation here? 

To get a better handle on who’s being arrested, and for what, Oak Park-River Forest Patch asked for arrest reports for pot possession in both villages, and what we got was a 19-month snapshot revealing dozens of busts for relatively small amounts of marijuana. 

Related:

Most of the possession charges stem from traffic stops, and of the 79 people arrested or cited for marijuana possession from January 2010 to July 2011, just 24 had addresses in Oak Park or River Forest. Here’s what else we found:

  • In Oak Park, the majority of offenders were Chicago residents, (20) followed by Oak Park (13) and Berwyn (6 arrests). Two Maywood residents were arrested, along with individual arrests of residents of nearby suburbs like Elmwood Park and Forest Park and as far as Arlington Heights and Gary, Ind.
  • Eight pot possession arrests in Oak Park also involved DUI arrests.
  • Out of the 55 arrests made in Oak Park during those 19 months, 41 offenders were African American.
  • The highest amount someone was caught with? 68.6 grams 
  • The lowest? 0.1 grams (For perspective, a typical joint contains anywhere from .03 to 1 gram of marijuana, according to various marijuana message boards)
  • The average amount of pot offenders were caught with? 6.52 grams 
  • In River Forest, the majority of offenders (7) hailed from Chicago, followed by Oak Park (6),  River Forest (4) and a handful of offenders from nearby Maywood, Bellwood and Berkeley. 
  • Three people were cited for violating village ordinance 8-6-4 for marijuana possession, a ticket that can be issued at an officer's discretion. (In two of these cases, the offenders were found with 3.75 grams and 3.7 grams of marijuana, respectively. A 19-year-old Oak Park man was cited under the same ordinance because a passenger in his car admited to having 21 grams of marijuana with him.)
  • Out of the combined 24 arrests made or tickets issued in River Forest during those months, 10 offenders, or 40 percent, were black. The other offenders identifying themselves as white or “white Hispanic” on police reports.
  • The highest amount someone was caught with? 29 grams
  • The lowest? 0.9 grams
  • The average amount of pot offenders were caught with? 8.1 grams

Rep. LaShawn K. Ford (D-8th), sponsor of House Bill 100 which aims to decriminalize marijuana in Illinois, said it's time for municipalities to start the discussions to see if reformed laws make sense in their communities. 

If it does, then it's time for local leaders to "cross over" and throw support behind the measure, Ford said. Passing legislation would also offer a guiding light for municipalitites.

"So many municipalities have taken up the issue now, and it's important that the state comes up with a uniform law that everyone can share," Ford said. 

Under Ford’s bill, the vast majority of offenders in our sampling would’ve avoided court dates and potential jail time and instead paid a fine to the municipality where they were busted. Only six people would’ve been arrested. 

With Ford's bill stalled in Springfield, he said he'll soon be meeting with Gov. Pat Quinn's office and state Republican leaders to prepare drafting a new bill for the spring session.

The new proposal, Ford said, would lower the threshold for the amount of marijuana someone could carry without getting jailed to 10 grams, down from an ounce (28.35 grams). It will also lower the fines to a maximum of $300, down from a maximum of $1,000, Ford said. 

Will politicians in Oak Park, a progressive outpost that was slow to embrace modern liquor laws, throw their support behind such a measure?

Not yet.

“We’re got our hands full with a bunch of issues and that’s not one that has come up,” said Oak Park Village President David Pope. “There’s been no board discussion, much less any direction, on that.”

While decriminilization hasn't been talked about at Oak Park Village Board meetings, it's been discussed in the police department. Police Chief Rick Tanksley has said his department is taking a look at some tweaks to current laws that would ticket and fine, not arrest and prosecute, juveniles caught with small amounts of marijuana. 

Those changes are under review by Oak Park's attorneys, Tanksley said, and are expected to be brought up to the village board in January. 

"It should be interesting," he said. 

Tomorrow, we’ll tell you what elected and appointed officials in Oak Park and River Forest have to say. For some, it will be their first time speaking publicly on the issue. Meanwhile, if you’re an Oak Park or River Forest resident — or if you’re just dropping by the site ­from elsewhere — we’d like to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment under this story. We’ll collect some of the best and incorporate them into this week’s coverage. 

ONE MORE THING

The decriminalization push is arguably driven by groundbreaking coverage from Chicago Reader’s Mick Dumke and Ben Joravksy. In addition to wrangling the first public comments on the issue from Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle (who’s in favor of ending arrests for small amounts) the pair’s reporting has unearthed several eye-popping stats about racial disparity and the costs of enforcement and prosecution.

They’ve found: Police in Chicago make roughly 23,000 marijuana possession arrests each year; Suburban Cook County law enforcement officers make about 5,000 arrests; In Chicago, African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested for low-level pot possession, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed; Those busts make for an 84,000 hours of police work each year in Cook County and municipalities in Cook County (that’s you, the taxpayer) spend an estimated minimum of $78 million a year arresting, jailing and prosecuting marijuana possession busts.

For more on the Reader's series, click here. 

Aly Brumback contributed to this report. 

pfroehlich2004 December 15, 2011 at 03:07 PM
We don't arrest adults for possessing liquor and there's no reason to arrest them for possessing marijuana, which is simply another intoxicant and a safer one at that.
Vincent Von Dudler December 18, 2011 at 02:52 AM
H.R. 2306 will return powers to the states by limiting federal jurisdiction to cross-border trafficking. This bill is what EVERYONE should be talking about. The debate is over! The time to take action is Now! Put H.R. 2306 in the forefront! Tell your representatives -> http://pvox.co/CdiFqY
Maria C Lopez December 19, 2011 at 01:11 AM
our government is still living in the dark ages! Time for major changes! If anything should be banned; it's alcohol (and IIT"S LEGAL) Go figure!!!! I'm 65 yrs old and have NEVER witnessed anyone harm anyone from smoking pot; unlike the many drunks out there who are busy killing people on the roadways and beating their wives! I really don't understand why we would rather make the drug dealers rich rather than lagalizing it and making some revenue to offset our budjet decline???? EXPLAIN THAT ONE...... Just say'n.....
Paul Yangas February 10, 2012 at 09:24 PM
If marijuana was regulated and taxed, like alcohol and cigarettes, it would change from an extreme expense to society, to more than paying for itself. Savings to society include the costs of enforcement officers time, court time, and jail time, which we are all paying for. If these savings were routed into enforcement against heavier drugs like cocaine and heroin we would soon eliminate our drug problem. Arguments about pot being a gateway drug are misguided. If people didn't have to develope/maintain illegal contacts to buy their pot, they would probably never try harder, more addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine, which are much more problematic to society. Even police know you can always tell the pot smokers in traffic. They're the ones doing 10 mph UNDER the speed limit. Alcohol is a MUCH bigger burden to society, from a user aggressiveness standpoint, and in health care costs and true addiction.
Cannabis March 10, 2012 at 07:00 PM
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