• John H. White/Sun-Times Media
  • Though police are making dozens of arrests a day, Alderman Danny Solis insists Chicago’s decriminalization law hasn’t gone to pot.

Alderman Danny Solis had a question for police Superintendent Garry McCarthy during budget hearings Thursday: Why are police still arresting people for low-level marijuana possession when they could be ticketing them instead?

Solis was the chief sponsor of the pot decriminalization ordinance that went on the books in Chicago last year, making international news. At the time, he called it a good first step toward ending the vast racial disparities in who’s busted while freeing police for more serious issues.

It hasn’t played out that way. Officers have barely issued any tickets—just 1,117 between August 2012 and this October. Meanwhile, they’ve made more than 13,000 arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession so far this year, a rate of more than 44 a day—higher than in 2012, records show.

As Solis put it: “I think that our expectations aren’t quite what we thought.”

The alderman has expressed his displeasure repeatedly over the last few months. In June he told me that he was going to demand that McCarthy publicly answer questions about what’s gone wrong. “It’s time to sit down and have him give us an explanation of what’s happening,” the alderman said at the time. “Why are certain communities still targeted? Why aren’t we ticketing? What’s it costing us?”

As recently as last week, he told the Sun-Times that he would urge McCarthy to get officers to “take it more seriously” and start writing tickets instead of hauling offenders to the station.

But Solis is one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s key allies, and what happened next was what usually happens when aldermen who depend on the mayor gripe to the media: somebody sat him down for a chat.

By Thursday, Solis had seen the light. “Let me thank you for the meeting we had last week,” he told McCarthy. “I think it’s important to point out that what we have done has been very effective. I’d like you to explain to the rest of my colleagues and to the media what has been accomplished by this ordinance.”

McCarthy was happy for the invitation. He had just spent the better part of an hour insisting that the police department was more than adequately staffed even though it’s spending nearly $2 million a week to pay officers overtime to conduct extra patrols in high-crime areas—three times the original overtime budget.

The police chief estimated that the pot tickets issued so far have probably saved a total of 4,000 police hours that would otherwise have been spent booking and processing arrestees. He didn’t mention how much time had been consumed by the arrests this year—about 52,000 additional hours, the equivalent of 6,500 patrol shifts.

Solis didn’t bring it up either, but he did help McCarthy offer an explanation for the busts. “There’s arrests that have to be made,” the alderman said. “Can you elaborate on those?”

McCarthy was ready. He said that many of the people caught with pot had to be arrested because they weren’t carrying identification. Others were smoking in the public way or on school grounds, and some had outstanding warrants.

But he didn’t provide any numbers, and Solis didn’t ask.

The question of who’s getting cuffed didn’t come up either, even though it was one of the reasons Solis originally gave for pushing the new law. Before the ordinance was passed, African-Americans accounted for nearly eight of every ten arrests. Not much appears to have changed. So far this year, more than 75 percent of all arrests were made in black wards though they account for less than 40 percent of the city’s population.

Still, Solis wanted to make sure everyone knew the marijuana policies are working fine.

“Is this tied into your overall strategy?” he asked.

“It absolutely is,” McCarthy said.