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Decriminalizing Marijuana Could Help Cash-Strapped Chicago, Alderman Says

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Updated with Mayor Emanuel's comments

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel took over, he immediately made it quite clear that he would do whatever it takes to get Chicago's fiscal house in order. As the state and the county struggle with the same issues, one topic has come up again and again: marijuana decriminalization.

So, on Wednesday, one alderman took action. Ald. Danny Solis (25th) introduced an ordinance to the City Council that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a ticketable offense -- leaving offenders to pay a $200 fine versus a misdemeanor charge, the Associated Press reports.

"In these trying times of the economy, we could really use the revenue generated by fines versus arrests," Solis told the AP. "And each (arrest) means police officers are spending an inordinate amount of time outside the neighborhoods, inside the district offices doing paperwork."

And Solis is not alone. Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) wrote a blog for the Huffington Post last week about his support for the Solis ordinance, and shared some thoughts on America's "War on Drugs":

The fact that governments all over the country are broke can be a good thing, if lawmakers are brave enough to stop appealing to the lowest common denominator and start telling the truth. This ordinance begins this in Chicago.

The War on Drugs started a year before I was born. It needs to die ASAP, because it has become a de facto war on poor people, minorities and reason.

Solis estimates that the change would bring the city $7 million per year and also save police and court workers "money and thousands of hours of time."

Earlier this month, the Chicago Reader reported that Cook County spent at least $78 million each year arresting, prosecuting, and jailing people for possession of marijuana. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has made it clear that she wants those costs to go down, and wants police to stop making arrests for low-level drug possession offenses county-wide. Cook County commissioner John Fritchey also supports decriminalization.

"The simple truth is that the decades-long policies that we have had toward possession of small amounts of marijuana have failed to do anything other than fill our jails with nonviolent offenders, strain our budgets, and according to some studies, even cause an increase in more serious crime," Fritchey said at a press conference on the matter last week, according to the Reader.

Aldermen including Howard Brookins, Richard Mell, Ariel Reboyras, Walter Burnett, Joe Moreno, Bob Fioretti and Deborah Graham have signed on as co-sponsors of the ordinance, NBC Chicago reports.

Mayor Emanuel had previously been silent on the issue, but weighed in on Wednesday. He said police officers have made similar suggestions to him, but he would want to make sure decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana would not create further problems.

“This issue has two parts to it — not one," Emanuel said, according to the Sun-Times. "The first part, which is what’s motivating people, is the issue of the cost in the system: arresting, overtime, court, jail. Then, there’s also the criminal justice side. I have to evaluate and will evaluate."

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