New York could learn a thing or two from Chicago's pot ordinance: Ald. Burke

New York could learn a thing or two from Chicago's pot ordinance: Ald. Burke
Photo by Nick Moroni

Fourteenth Ward Ald. Ed Burke commended the Second City today for being a leader when it comes to marijuana reform--despite the fact that it just passed an ordinance similar to ones that have been on the books in other towns and states for decades.

Nonetheless, Burke noted that New York City and state could learn a thing or two from the Chicago City Council.

"Perhaps you can pick up the phone and call Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo and Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg and tell them that Chicago has a better way," Burke said to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, near the end of a 10-minute monologue about why he backed Chicago's ordinance, which also enjoyed the mayor's support.

Emanuel knows both Bloomberg--another celebrity mayor--and Cuomo, personally.

Burke was referring to Cuomo's recently foiled attempt to push legislation--which Bloomberg supported--that would have completely decriminalized marijuana through New York's General Assembly. The bill did not clear both chambers at the end of the legislative session.

New York decriminalized grass back in 1977, making possession of 25 grams or less a ticketable offense--if you're indoors.

There's language in the current state law that states that offenders caught outdoors--in "public"--with small amounts of marijuana are subject to arrest. Cuomo's bill would have deleted that language.

The New York Police Department's "Stop and Frisk" strategy, in which officers stop people based on suspicion and require them to empty their pockets, catalyzed the proposed legislation.

Critics complain that the strategy unfairly targets people of color, who have been disproportionately stopped and arrested for having a little dope in their pocket, often less than 25 grams. Even so, that puts them in violation of the state law's "public" possession provision.

And according to The New York Times, about 87 percent of the roughly 50,000 low-level marijuana arrestees in New York City each year are either African American or Latino.

Sounds kind of like Chicago.

In the middle of his speech, Burke rattled off a few statistics he said he got from the Chicago Police Department:

"There were 20,603 arrests for marijuana in 2011 ... Of those 20,603 arrests for marijuana possession, 1,000 of them were white people. 15,862 were African American. 15,862 were African American. Sixteen times more likely to be arrested for possession of cannabis if you're an African American. ... The system is broken."

Burke, who initially said he had "grave misgivings" about the ordinance, announced at the end of his testimony that he was "pleased to support it."

The ordinance gives police the option to ticket people over 18 caught with 15 grams or less of marijuana. The fines range from $250-$500.

The passage of the ordinance was a victory for marijuana reform advocates and those who want more police available to combat violent and more serious crimes--one of the marketed aims of this ordinance.

Chicago's murder rate was more than four times as high as New York City's--a city that is almost four times as big as Chicago--at the beginning of June.

"I want a full court press," Emanuel said, in reference to increased police attention to violent crime, following the ordinance's passage.

But there still is murkiness over how Chicago police will implement the law, which will determine its true measure of success.

Kathleen Kane-Willis, a Roosevelt University professor and director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, said that because officers can choose to write tickets, the police department must create an incentive for officers to actually do so.

CPD administrators claim "arrests don't count for promotion, but when I talk to police officers they say absolutely it does. Your activity counts. What you do on the streets counts," Kane-Willis said. "There has to be buy-in by the police officers. The way that you get buy-in from the police officers is to make sure that it counts for something."

"It's easy to pass an ordinance, it's difficult to implement an ordinance and have it work," she added. "Just because this got passed doesn't mean that, on the street, anything will change. This is a step in the right direction, though."

Melissa Stratton, CPD spokesperson, was not available to comment on if or how the department will implement the ordinance and incentivize the issuance of tickets over arrests. Note, though, that Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, a former NYPD officer, strongly supports the idea of writing tickets.

Kevin Jones, director of the New York Capitol Region chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, echoed Kane-Willis' point about the importance of police work when discussing what the change to New York state law would have looked like, had it passed.

"It comes down to the actual practicing of the police" that would have measured the success of New York's re-vamped decriminalization law, Jones said.

"It's difficult to control police on the street when they believe what they're doing is right," Jones said in reference to the practice of Stop and Frisk. "But we're looking at 50,000 arrests a year, you guys [Chicago] have something like 20,000. It's devastating [in New York]. It comes down to ineffective policing."

As for Chicago's shot at marijuana reform?

"It's a moving target," Kane-Willis said.

© Community Renewal Society 2012


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