07/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Ticket For Marijuana Possession In Cook County? Reduced Pot Penalty Proposed As Budget Woes Deepen

Getting caught with a small amount of marijuana would not automatically lead to arrest if a Cook County Commissioner gets her way.

An ordinance proposed this week by Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-Chicago) would allow county sheriffs to write tickets for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana rather than automatically making arrests. It's an effort, she says, to simultaneously boost sagging county revenues and ease overcrowding at the Cook County Jail.

"I know we're going to have a deficit budget," Collins told the Huffington Post. "This ordinance would help the County generate money and reduce the jail population."

Several states and municipalities have similar legislation that effectively decriminalizes possessing small amounts of marijuana, according to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington, D.C.

"One-third of the country, or 115 million Americans, live in places where marijuana has been effectively decriminalized," St. Pierre told the Huffington Post. "And Cook County is by far the biggest municipality in the U.S. to take a look at decriminalization without the state doing it."

States with home-rule charters, such as Illinois, allow for local or municipal governments to extend greater or lesser freedoms or privileges to its citizens if they want. Alcohol-free dry counties are a common example.

The Cannabis Possession Ordinance would apply only to arrests made by county sheriffs and in unincorporated Cook County.

A spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart declined to comment on the proposed ordinance since it is only in committee.

In 2008, Dart's office made 212 arrests for possession or delivery of cannabis under 30 grams.

"It's something we already do with traffic offenses," Commissioner Larry Suffredin told the Huffington Post. "The object here is if you had someone you felt was on the straight and narrow and just barely crossed the line, give them the benefit of the doubt."

Suffredin has not yet read the full legislation but said he supports it in principle.

"In general, I'm in favor of giving law enforcement options to make it easier to stop someone from getting deeper into the criminal justice system."

The ordinance, which awaits consideration in the finance committee, levies a $250 fee on first-time offenders, a $500 fee for a second offense and a $750 fee for the third strike.

Collins' proposal follows a similar ordinance passed in south Suburban Chicago Heights last December.

Chicago Heights Police Sgt. Michael Leuser said the law is a matter of practicality in cases where the amount of cannabis would only amount to a petty offense and not even a class A misdemeanor.

"The reason for that," Leuser said, "is that nine times out of 10, judges are tossing [the charges] out."

Collins said several commissioners have asked to co-sponsor the ordinance, though she declined to drop names.

A spokesman for Board President Todd Stroger declined to comment, saying Stroger had not yet looked at the ordinance.

Criminal records, including possession of even small amounts of marijuana, can disqualify students from receiving financial aid and residents from qualifying for Section 8 housing.

Nationwide, nearly nine out of 10 marijuana arrests since 1965 have been for possession only, and the vast majority of those for amounts less than an ounce, according to the FBI's 2007 Uniform Crime Report.

Marijuana is the only drug in Illinois that is a misdemeanor to possess.

Of the 1,296 arrests for marijuana possession made in Illinois in 2008, 762 -- or 59 percent -- were class C misdemeanors, which is for 2.5 grams or less, according to Illinois State Police Sgt. Juan Valenzuela.

Another 357 -- or 28 percent -- were arrested in Illinois for possessing between 2.5 and 10 grams in 2008, and 177 -- or 14 percent -- for possessing 10 to 30 grams.

Cash-strapped municipalities across the country, from Texas to Colorado, are looking at decriminalizing marijuana as a possible budget remedy.

"It should come as no surprise," St. Pierre said, "that when the fight becomes over money, all of a a sudden people get so clear-minded about their priorities."