Pot law leads to few tickets | WBEZ
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Has the idea of ticketing pot gone up in smoke?

Did Chicago’s change in its marijuana law work?

That’s what the Chicago’s City Council and Mayor Rahm Emanuel will have to ask themselves as the tally of last year’s “pot tickets” trickled in last week.  

If you don’t follow Chicago’s highly-scrutinized politics of pot, let’s rewind. Back in June 2012, City Council voted 43 to 3 to effectively decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot. So, by August of last year, Chicago police had the option of treating such possession as a ticketable offense — not just an arrestable one.

Backers hailed the change as a way to divert police resources to where they're most needed. 

“I commend the City Council for passing this ordinance that will hold people accountable while freeing up police officers to focus their time and efforts on crime prevention,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement, issued after the law’s passage. 

If you don’t follow the logic, here’s the rationale for the policy change.

In 2011 the Chicago Police Department tallied 95,774 arrests for an estimated 350,374 crimes, which ranged from murders and shootings to burglaries and assaults, according to city data. That same year, the Chicago Police Department made 20,082 arrests for possession of cannabis for amounts under 30 grams. In other words, nearly one out of every five arrests made by Chicago cops that year involved possession of small amounts of pot. 

Aldermen and others argued that the sheer number of pot arrests distracted the department from the city’s ongoing battle against violence. They also weren’t happy that pot arrests disproportionately swept up black youth. In a scathing editorial, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) claimed “White people smoke marijuana as much as black and Latino people, yet 78% of those arrested in Chicago are minorities. 90% of those convicted are minorities.”

And, there was another argument: Ticketing weed-smokers could both save and raise some serious cash.

On the savings front, proponents of decriminalizing pot-possession pointed to the cost of arresting and prosecuting offenders. The Chicago Reader reported that Cook County spent nearly $78 million on arrests and prosecutions. All that for questionable results, as the conviction rate was abysmal, even by Mayor Emanuel’s own admission.

“We cannot afford to take our officers off the streets for hours at a time only to see over 80 percent of the marijuana cases dismissed in court,” the mayor said after aldermen passed the ticketing amendment last year.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy estimated that the new ordinance would free up more than 20,000 hours of police time each year, the equivalent of about $1 million in savings, the Chicago Tribune reported.

In that same article, the Chicago Tribune said the mayor’s office refused to give an estimate on ticket revenues, but City Hall stressed savings in man-hours and cops’ overtime. The paper, using 2011 data, estimated the city stood to raise anywhere from $4.5 million to $9 million. Alderman Danny Solis (25th) was one of the bill’s sponsors, and argued that the city could take in as much as $7 million.

So, as City Hall looked through its crystal ball last summer, it saw a seemingly small change in local pot policy accomplishing quite a bit: the policy would free cops to do more important work, it would put a dent in violence, and it would boost city coffers. 

But now that real data are trickling in about the policy, maybe that vision was unrealistic. 

The tally

Two sources have been tracking the number of tickets issued for cannabis since last August. The first — the Department of Administrative Hearings — is tasked with handling citations, including ones issued for possession of cannabis. Responding to a WBEZ Freedom of Information Act request, that department said there were 380 tickets issued for cannabis in 2012 between the time the law went into effect and Dec. 31. The other source — the Chicago Police Department — said that total stands at 395. 

The Department of Administrative Hearings was not immediately available, but here’s a stab at clearing up the discrepancy. The CPD figures are more up to date than those available from DAH (via FOIA) or the city’s data portal site, as the police can access records that contain more refined categories. However, we use the figure of 380 because — as the police department says — after a ticket is issued, tracking is actually up to DAH.  

The city’s data portal site only lists pot possessions for amounts greater or less than 30 grams, and does not differentiate arrests made for persons possessing under 15 grams, the amount the ordinance sets as the limit that the police can issue tickets.

(The map below details locations of arrests for pot possessions as well as the locations for tickets issued.) 

 2012 Pot arrests for 30 grams or less
 2012 tickets issued for cannabis under 15 grams

Regardless, how do the numbers stack up compared to City Hall’s stated goals? 

Right now, it looks like city's got some catching up to do when it comes to replacing marijuana arrests with marijuana tickets. Of all police actions relating to possessing small amounts of pot, just 2 percent are from tickets, while the other 98 percent stem from arrests. 

Administrative judges found that 138 of those 380 issued tickets came to nothing, meaning the people ticketed were ultimately held not liable, and the fines were dropped. 

The bottom line is that the city’s coffers didn’t exactly swell, as the tickets that did stick netted just $98,000. 

Pot arrests did plunge after the law went into effect, but there wasn’t a one-for-one replacement of tickets for arrests. As if by an occult hand, marijuana arrests had been going down (on average, 2 to 4 percent per month) in Chicago prior to the City Council’s change in policy. However, one estimate puts the drop in pot possession arrests in August 2012 at nearly 45 percent, compared to the same month in other years.

“Since the ordinance went into effect, arrests for possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis accounted for a total of 4,745 arrests and the issuance of 395 administrative notices of violations (ANOVs), as compared to 7,772 arrests for the time frame 4 August through 23 December 2011,” said the police department’s Melissa Stratton.

That’s a drop of 3,027 arrests year-over-year for that period. But, again, DAH only dealt with 380 tickets by the end of 2012.

The policy on the ground 

The shortfall in marijuana tickets is likely due to how the new policy was implemented. Shortly after the law’s passage, the police department issued a special order (related to the alternative cannabis enforcement program) that laid out how to issue tickets. The gist was that cops could issue tickets in some circumstances, but make arrests in others. 

“Our officers enforce the marijuana law as part of their daily duties. While issuing a citation for marijuana possession under 10 grams saves time for our officers, in certain situations our officers are required to make a physical arrest,” said Melissa Stratton, Director of News Affairs at the Chicago Police Department. 

The amendment that makes pot-ticketing possible in the first place spans three pages, but the CPD special order comprises nine. One page details “aggravating factors” that could lead to an arrest. 

The first is whether subjects are “in the act of smoking cannabis.” This means residents caught in the act get the cuffs instead of getting a ticket. Other factors that bump possession from a ticket to an arrest include driving while under the influence. Smoking on school grounds, in parks and at beaches will also get you arrested.

Stratton said the presence of personal identification makes a difference, too. Tickets require subjects to present ID. If a subject doesn’t have one, he or she is arrested instead. 

And, the amount of pot involved matters, too. Exactly how much will bump an infraction from a ticket to an arrest? Anything over 15 grams. For comparison, consider that a typical joint weighs between 0.2 and 0.8 grams. A little arithmetic suggests somebody could carry the equivalent of 15-20 joints and still be under 15 grams.  

But, again, arrest rates suggest officers aren't making the most of their power to bump some ticketable infractions into arrests. The reason may be that cops are just opting to make fewer arrests, albeit surreptitiously, as reported by the Chicago Reader’s Mick Dumke last October.

“The numbers suggest that at first some officers tried the ticketing process. In the first week of the new policy, 27 tickets were issued citywide. By week six, though, the number had fallen to eight,” he wrote then.

Is this what City Council wanted? 

Chicago’s not racking up that many pot-related tickets, but in some ways aldermen are getting one thing they hoped for: police seem to be easing back on pot arrests.

However, the change in policy promised more than that. Recall that idea of distraction; if police would only spend less time chasing weed-tokers, they could spend more time fighting violent crime.

That remains to be seen. Murders continued to climb after the close of 2012’s long, hot summer of violence and, by year’s end, the homicide tally reached a recent high of 507. Shootings were up, too.

Gun shootings, or aggravated batteries with a firearm, reached 1,737 in 2011. Police made 148 shootings-related arrests, leaving the arrest rate for that year at 8.5 percent.

The picture was different in 2012. The city saw 1,884 such incidents last year, but police made just 93 shooting-related arrests, with an attendant arrest rate of 4.9 percent.

The mayor's office deferred to the police department for comment on the tickets. Calls to several aldermen were also not returned.

It may be ironic that a City Hall that meticulously tracks  — and often touts — numbers related to garbage pickups, snow-zone towing and other minutia hasn’t weighed in on whether its major change in drug policy has made the city safer or richer.

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