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Study released on handling of minor marijuana cases in Illinois

Posted: 05/19/2014

Illinois is one of the least friendly places in the nation for those caught possessing small amounts of marijuana, a new study by Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy suggests.

An emphasis on misdemeanor arrests for possession and a lack of consistency in implementing local pot-ticket laws typify how cases involving small amounts of marijuana possession frequently are handled in Illinois, according to the report that looks at misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests vs. tickets.

Illinois ranked fifth in the nation for the number of marijuana arrests made in 2010, and the state ranked first in the country for its high proportion of marijuana possession arrests vs. marijuana sales/distribution arrests. A whopping 98.7 percent of marijuana arrests in Illinois were cases involving simple possession, according to the study.

“We believe that the implementation of the pot-ticket ordinance in Chicago and other municipalities across the state is uneven, incomplete, unjust and expensive,” said Kathleen Kane-Willis, lead author of the study entitled “Patchwork Policy: An Evaluation of Arrests and Tickets for Marijuana Misdemeanors in Illinois.”

“The state is failing when it comes to marijuana policy, particularly when considering that a majority of Illinois residents support ticketing for people who have small amounts of marijuana,” Kane-Willis said.

The study recommends establishing collective, cohesive decriminalization legislation in Illinois that emphasizes the use of tickets rather than arrests for minor offenses that typically involve possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Also recommended is a fiscal analysis for Illinois that would determine how much revenue could be raised by the state, possibly to benefit schools and/or substance abuse prevention and treatment, if marijuana were to be legalized, licensed and taxed.

Over 100 municipalities in Illinois have enacted pot-ticket ordinances to address handling of cases involving possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to the study. The Roosevelt research team looked at ordinances in 18 municipalities, including a ticketing law that was enacted in the city of Chicago in August 2012 in order to save money and police hours.

Although researchers found decreases in arrests in communities where pot-ticket laws were used, the majority of cases in the municipalities reviewed were for arrests, not tickets. These municipalities include Chicago, where arrests dropped just 21 percent; the city of Yorkville, down 32 percent; the city of Urbana, down 40 percent; and the city of Evanston, where arrests slid 46 percent.

Roosevelt researchers also compared the number of pot tickets issued to the number of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made in six Illinois municipalities. While tickets were utilized more often than arrests in Countryside, Champaign and Evanston, arrests predominated over ticket writing in Urbana, Chicago and Yorkville.

Ninety-three percent of misdemeanor marijuana possession violations in 2013 resulted in arrest in Chicago, while just 7 percent of the city’s minor marijuana possession cases resulted in tickets. That is more than 14 arrests for every ticket issued, giving the city of Chicago an arrest rate for misdemeanor marijuana possession that is nearly double the  Illinois rate.

The city’s high rate of arrest also is believed to be a chief driver behind data that show Cook County leading the nation, with the most arrests for pot possession, of any U.S. county in 2010. Cook’s arrest rate also was more than double the rate of arrest for marijuana possession in the United States as a whole.

“We expected cities to issue many more tickets and for arrests to decrease much more significantly. It could be that cities and police departments are not prioritizing ticketing and are instead defaulting to arresting under state law” said Marcia Bazan, a member of the research team.

Equally as troubling, according to the researchers, is a finding that those in possession of small amounts of marijuana are apt to face widely different treatment and penalties, depending on where in the state they are stopped with the marijuana. For instance, someone stopped with up to 10 grams of marijuana in west suburban Countryside most likely will receive a ticket, while someone possessing a similar amount of pot in west suburban Aurora will be arrested.  This is despite the fact that Aurora officials enacted a pot-ticket ordinance in 2008, but have not yet issued any tickets.

“The problem is in one area you get arrested, and in the other area you get ticketed,” said Kane-Willis. “With so many different laws on the books, it would be difficult if not impossible for someone possessing a small amount of marijuana to know which laws apply where,” Kane-Willis said.

The patchwork system of laws regarding marijuana possession in Illinois “creates a geographic disparity in which pot possession is determined by where you are, rather than what you are doing,” added Vilmarie Fraguada Narloch, a report co-author.

In terms of racial disparity in arrests, Illinois ranks third in the nation.  In Illinois, African Americans were found to be about 7.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana possession charges, according to the study.  Cook County, in particular, had one of the highest racial disparities in pot-possession arrests in the nation.

The researchers were surprised to find that arrest rates rose in some areas of the city after the ticketing ordinance was enacted. This increase in arrest rates was found in predominantly minority neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.

“When you are talking about a rate of arrest that is 150 times higher in a Chicago neighborhood like East Garfield Park, as compared to Edison Park, for example, you have to conclude that the system is fundamentally flawed,” Kane-Willis said.

In 2013 alone, the study calculated between 24,000 and 63,000 hours may have been spent by Chicago police arresting marijuana misdemeanants, with costs associated with the arrests ranging from $25 million to $116 million. Reducing arrests by half could save as much as $58 million, according to the study.  If pot tickets were issued instead, the city could raise an estimated $2.9 million, compared to around $416,250 that 1,100 tickets generated in 2013, researchers said.  “We aren’t saving money if we aren’t using the tickets, particularly in Chicago where 40 percent of the state’s low-level marijuana arrests are being made,” Kane-Willis said.