On June 28, the day after the City Council voted to lessen pot possession penalties, law enforcement agents held a press conference to announce the interception of eight tons of weed.
On June 28, the day after the City Council voted to lessen pot possession penalties, law enforcement agents held a press conference to announce the interception of eight tons of weed. Credit: Alison Green

Rahm Emanuel’s interest in marijuana seemed to come out of nowhere. In truth, it was months in the making.

He’d been silent on the subject since tabling a proposal last fall that would ticket some possessors rather than haul them off to jail. Then, on June 15, he abruptly announced his support for a slightly tougher version of the plan. The announcement came from a safe distance—via press release, while he was in Europe for his daughter’s bat mitzvah. And the issue was reframed to make the change more politically palatable: the proposal, Emanuel stated, “allows us to observe the law, while reducing the processing time for minor possession of marijuana—ultimately freeing up police officers for the street.”

Within hours the story was international news, and within two weeks the new law was on the books. What remains to be seen is whether it will actually change anything.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Mayor Rahm EmanuelCredit: Richard A. Chapman / Sun-Times Media

The sudden passage of the law is the latest example of the absurdity surrounding marijuana policies and politics—an ongoing saga in which elected officials vow to crack down on a behavior that millions of Americans have engaged in, then giggle at their own jokes about getting stoned and getting the munchies. Not all of it is funny. As we reported last year, marijuana is believed to be used at similar rates across racial groups, yet African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession in Chicago.

These arrests burden local courts, resulting in punishments meted out so capriciously that armed dealers are sometimes let off with little more than a slap on the wrist while casual users are locked up for possessing a dime bag. And though about 90 percent of these arrests are effectively thrown out in court, they cost county taxpayers at least $78 million and tens of thousands of police hours a year.

Even politicians long opposed to softening marijuana policies admit something needs to change. “The system is broken,” says City Council dean Ed Burke.

Last fall, after our stories hit the street, Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle and commissioner John Fritchey called on the city to reexamine its marijuana policies. At first only a few aldermen murmured their agreement, but eventually three joined Fritchey at a press conference to demand changes.

Alderman Danny Solis (25th), one of Emanuel's most loyal supporters
John J. Kim/Sun-Times Media
Alderman Danny Solis (25th), one of Emanuel’s most loyal supporters
John J. Kim/Sun-Times MediaCredit: John J. Kim / Sun-Times Media

To everyone’s surprise, in strode Danny Solis, one of the mayor’s most loyal supporters. And he didn’t just show up: he announced plans to introduce his own proposal to the City Council to turn low-level pot possession into a ticketable offense. While the proposal still gave police the option of making arrests, it noted that “a disproportionate number of these arrests are of minorities” and proposed “a conversation among experts in health and public safety fields to gather data and information.” Twenty-six other aldermen signed on as cosponsors.

The move was widely viewed as Emanuel’s way of bogarting the issue from Preckwinkle and Fritchey. But Solis insists that he wasn’t sent to crash Fritchey’s press conference. “The mayor didn’t want me to introduce this at all,” he says.

What’s undeniable, though, is that the issue belonged to the mayor from that point on.

Publicly the mayor told reporters that a cop had advised him to make some changes during a police ride-along, but he wanted time to “study” the issue. Privately Emanuel also needed to figure out where to stand politically. It took seven months. “Everything here moves slowly,” says a mayoral aide.

Inside City Hall Emanuel made it clear that he was opposed to any move that would make him look soft on crime, the issue on which Chicagoans rate him lowest. He told aides that he wouldn’t back any changes that could be characterized as “decriminalization”—but he might consider various “alternative sanctions,” with an emphasis on the fact that police could still make arrests if they chose.

On the other hand, he didn’t want to be left behind in what was obviously becoming a growing political trend. In addition to Preckwinkle and Fritchey, high-profile politicians in other cities and states were talking openly about pot while he was staying quiet. The most influential development came on June 4, when Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg united behind a plan to expand New York state’s decriminalization law as a way of reducing arrests in New York City.

Ultimately, though, another issue closer to home played a much bigger role in Emanuel’s decision: a steady barrage of headlines about bloodshed in Chicago.

By the first of June shootings citywide were up 11 percent and murders 46 percent over 2011. Meanwhile, police superintendent Garry McCarthy was insisting to a group of downtown business leaders that the city’s public safety problem was a matter of “perception” since overall crime totals were still going down.

The mayor and police chief went to work highlighting all they were doing to stop the violence, announcing a crackdown on problem liquor stores, weekly busts of street-corner narcotics dealers, and an improved strategy for sharing gang intelligence. What they couldn’t do was heed the calls to hire more police officers, because there isn’t any money for them. Chicago currently has about 10,600 police officers on the payroll—a drop of about 1,200 since Richard M. Daley’s last reelection five years ago, and 300 fewer than when Emanuel took office just last year. Staffing was stretched enough that in early June police brass circulated a department memo announcing “Violence Reduction Initiative 2012″—that is, a new policy of inviting cops to work on their off days for overtime pay “in an effort to reduce the public violence incidents throughout the city.”

Police superintendent Garry McCarthy wants officers focused on 
higher-level offenses
Police superintendent Garry McCarthy wants officers focused on
higher-level offensesCredit: Stephanie Dowell / Sun-Times Media

The mayor had to show the public that if there are fewer police officers on the street, at least they aren’t wasting their time on frivolous matters. So by mid-June he decided to back Alderman Solis’s decriminalization ordinance, only he refused to call it a decriminalization ordinance. And it looked very different from the one Solis had proposed a few months earlier.

When the new version of the proposal resurfaced before the public safety committee, gone was the language about racial disparities. Instead, it stated that a ticketing approach “will free up precious police resources and may result in a more robust punitive and deterrent effect.” The new version increased the ticketable amount from ten to 15 grams (about half an ounce). But the fines were also hiked significantly. Originally Solis proposed fines from $100 to $200. Under the revised ordinance, they started at $250 and went up to $500 for each repeat offense.

If the mayor was easing up on marijuana enforcement, he was doing so very reluctantly.

That was the spirit of the June 21 council hearing where, for more than three hours, aldermen fretted about the plan. They worried about sending the wrong message to children, declared their firm opposition to drug dealing and gangbanging, and emphasized—then emphasized a few more times—that they’re not advocates of smoking or legalizing reefer . . . even if it’s funny to joke about.

Last fall, Cook County commissioner John Fritchey struggled to round up three aldermen to stand by him at a press conference about pot. Seven months later, only three aldermen dared say no to a law pushed by Rahm Emanuel to soften the penalties for carrying weed.

Superintendent McCarthy was there at the behest of the mayor to provide them with political cover. He noted that it currently takes two police officers as much as four hours each—eight hours total—to process each of the annual 20,000 marijuana arrests in Chicago. “That’s 2,500 police hours a day that can be diverted back into the neighborhoods,” he said.

The police chief stressed that officers were not about to stop busting people they catch with marijuana. Since 90 percent of pot possession cases are thrown out in court, he argued that tickets would actually be more punitive. “We are not talking about decriminalization,” McCarthy said. “We are talking about holding people accountable.”

Alderman Burke, a former police officer, liked what he was hearing. “This is not necessarily a decriminalization of the possession of cannabis but a recriminalization of the possession of cannabis,” he said. “So we’re not sending the message that you can walk down Michigan Avenue smoking a joint.”

That prompted a collective exhale from the aldermen. But there were many other questions.

City Council dean Ed Burke, a former police officer
City Council dean Ed Burke, a former police officerCredit: Sun-Times Media

“How much would 15 grams of marijuana cost?” wondered 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr.

“I don’t know,” said James Balcer, a Vietnam vet who chairs the public safety committee, “because I don’t smoke marijuana.”

His colleagues laughed.

McCarthy leaned toward his mike. “I’m told it could be about $50.” More laughter—and a few mutters in the press box that 50 bucks seemed a little light.

The aldermen also debated other critical issues, such as how many joints could be fashioned out of 15 grams of weed. Based on a New York Times story, Alderman Burke put the number at 30. To Nicholas Sposato (36th), a former firefighter, that number seemed, well, high.

“Some of my sources tell me it’s only 15 joints, depending on how big you roll them,” Sposato said.

Alderman Anthony Beale (Ninth) smiled mischievously. “I’ve never heard so many disclaimers in a committee meeting.”

Still, Beale had a sobering issue to raise: whether marijuana would be recriminalized with more vigor in some parts of town than others. “I’m concerned that this is becoming more of a revenue generator than an effort to deter people from possessing or using marijuana,” Beale said. “I guarantee you that the majority of people arrested last year were poor people.”

He argued that the fines should be lower for first-time offenders, then quickly added: “I’m not advocating for marijuana.” The fines stayed put.

Despite Solis’s original vows to hear from experts, none were called before the committee. Four members of the public requested the opportunity to speak, including a substance abuse counselor opposed to the law and Kathleen Kane-Willis, a drug policy expert at Roosevelt University, who backed it. She said academic researchers had long since disproved the gateway theory. “Smoking pot doesn’t cause people to try other drugs,” she said.

At that point only four aldermen were still in the room.

It was a week before the full council vote, and mayoral aides used it to continue reassuring nervous aldermen that they weren’t getting flabby on crime by supporting the measure. “Possession, smoking and/or selling of marijuana would still be illegal and officers would still be making quality of life stops,” a briefing sheet distributed to aldermen noted. It also advised that in response to council input, possessors without identification or under 17 would still be arrested, hauled to the station for booking, and sent into the criminal court system.

Alderman Willie Cochran (20th), a former narcotics cop
Alderman Willie Cochran (20th), a former narcotics copCredit: Richard A. Chapman / Sun-Times Media

The approach worked. After a series of speeches assuring the public that Chicago wasn’t going easy on potheads, the council voted 43-3 in favor of the measure.

To put it another way: In November, Fritchey, the county commissioner, struggled to round up three aldermen to stand next to him at a press conference about marijuana. Seven months later, only three aldermen dared to say no to a law pushed by the mayor to soften the penalties for carrying it.

Some aldermen took the discussion far beyond what the mayor had intended. “The war on drugs has failed,” proclaimed 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran, a former narcotics cop and at least the fourth aldermen to make a similar statement.

Under current policies, Cochran added, “How many of us sitting here could have had a criminal history?”

The law goes into effect ten days after passage and publication—that is, August 4. And it’s not entirely clear how it will play out.

“It all depends on how it’s implemented and enforced,” says Kane-Willis, the Roosevelt professor. “You’ve had decrim in New York since 1977—and then you have 50,000 possession arrests a year.”

She says she thinks the fines are too high for the poor young men most likely to be ticketed, and she worries that police won’t have any reason to stop making arrests. “My concern is that there’s no incentive to ticket,” she says. “The worst case, we end up with the tickets and the arrests. Best case: we end up moving to tickets and do something about the racial gap.”

One police watch commander says that in a few cases ticketing could free up officers’ time, but he doubts it’s going to have a wide impact.

“I can’t tell you the last shitheads I stopped who had an ID. What I’m going to tell my guys is, hey, if it’s a gangbanger, you bring them in.”

His solution? “Pot should be legal. Not this half-in, half-out thing.”

If anyone thought Chicago was going easy on dope dealers, officials tried to lay it to rest on June 28, the day after the full council vote. That’s when police and federal agents held a press conference on the west side to announce that they’d intercepted eight tons of marijuana, with an estimated street value of $40 million, at an undisclosed location “in the greater Chicago metropolitan area.”

As he spoke to reporters and camera crews, Superintendent McCarthy stood in front of a seven-foot stack of plastic-wrapped bales, saying it was a sign that police were disrupting the work of drug gangs. “A seizure of this magnitude is an important tool in stopping the violence in our communities,” he said.

McCarthy acknowledged that the marijuana had been seized two days earlier—the night before the council vote. But he vehemently denied that the timing was in any way related. “We’re talking about an ongoing investigation and it was not appropriate for us to do this two days ago.”

He stressed that there’s more work to be done. “If anyone expects we’re going to turn on a switch and say there’s no more violence in Chicago, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s going to be a long time before anyone declares victory in this war, and that’s what it is.”

Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the date that the marijuana law goes into effect.