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Chicago to Decriminalize Marijuana

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The Chicago City Council passed -- by a vote of 43 to 2 -- an ordinance today that will decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. People caught with less than half an ounce of marijuana may now be given a ticket rather than be arrested. The fine will be $250 at first, and more for subsequent tickets. People caught smoking in public, on school grounds or in public will still be arrested, as will those without an ID or under age 17.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy came out in support of the ordinance earlier this month and have talked about the need to free up police resources to fight more serious crime.

Momentum to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana is clearly growing nationally, with Massachusetts reducing penalties in 2008, California in 2010, Connecticut in 2011 and Rhode Island earlier this year. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently proposed decriminalizing up to 25 grams of marijuana in public view, which drew the support of New York City's mayor, police commissioner and all five of the City's district attorneys -- although Republicans in the state Senate blocked it from becoming law.

The Chicago City Council's vote today to allow police to issue a ticket rather than arrest someone for marijuana is very much a step in the right direction. The Council's near unanimous support for the measure as well as specific comments by aldermen demonstrated significant concern with the waste of police resources, harmful consequences of an arrest and the fact that more than three-fourths of all marijuana arrests are of African Americans. If the measure is implemented in good faith, it should reduce the negative consequences of the state's marijuana prohibition laws in Chicago.

But the devil is very much in the details as to whether the new ordinance will ultimately do more good than harm. The fine of $250, and possibly more, is excessive -- and may result in undue hardship for young and poor people without the resources to pay. Police will retain the legal authority to arrest rather than ticket people for marijuana possession, thereby allowing for the perpetuation of racial bias in enforcing the state's marijuana laws. More people may be stopped and charged with marijuana possession offenses than before. And the mayor and police chief's insistence that their proposal "is not decriminalization" is less than reassuring.

Chicago's aldermen need to remain vigilant in ensuring that the measure they approved today actually accomplishes what they hope. They also need to push the state legislature to decriminalize marijuana possession statewide. And ultimately, of course, the best solution is to end marijuana prohibition entirely!

Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)