Tickets for pot possession: a tax on young black men?

Tickets for pot possession: a tax on young black men?

Last month, something unforgettable happened: Two Chicago journalists wrote something, and a politician responded in a meaningful way.

That might not seem like big news to you, but to those of us who are used to getting routine responses from public officials, stating blandly that they are “concerned” about an issue and “will look into it further,” getting an actual response from someone in power is quite amazing.

The journalists were Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader and the politician, Toni Preckwinkle. Dumke and Joravsky, both former The Chicago Reporter staffers, knocked it out of the park with an investigation revealing the ratio of black-to-white arrests for pot possession in Chicago was 15 to 1, even though marijuana use is something all classes and races have in common.

Preckwinkle’s response? We’ve got to stop. “I think we should decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, that’s for sure,” she said.

And now, the new police superintendent has gotten in on the act. While at first he was hesitant, Gerry McCarthy has proposed a solution: ticketing instead of arrests for marijuana possession.

When I first heard this idea, I was genuinely confused. A ticket? Like a parking ticket? For smoking pot? So, instead of charging people with a crime and throwing them in jail for a night, we’re just charging them money instead?

Somewhere along the line, perhaps McCarthy missed the point. Dumke and Joravsky said arrests for pot possession were disproportionately for black men. Preckwinkle said that was wrong for several reasons, one of which was that it costs the county money to lock people up for no reason. Then McCarthy comes up with a proposal: instead of it costing people money, we’ll start charging them.

When I chatted with host Ken Davis last week on CAN TV’s Chicago Newsroom, Davis suggested it was just another revenue raising idea from a cash strapped city and county. And maybe, like red-light cameras, that means enforcement for marijuana possession would spread to wealthier, whiter communities.

But the anecdotes and quotes from the Reader article are just not anything I can imagine going on in wealthy North Side neighborhoods.

“It’s such a waste of manpower—you stop somebody and a nickel bag falls out,” says the watch commander. And if the police take time to make an arrest and file a report, “they’re not on the street responding to other calls.”

The arrests aren’t helping with neighborhood relations either. “I think it’s a travesty because there are bigger things going on in the community, such as violence,” says Jimmy Simmons, a community policing facilitator in the west-side neighborhoods of Humboldt Park and East Garfield Park.

Simmons says too often police simply stop and search men who appear to be minding their own business, which breeds distrust throughout the community. “It’s almost like racial profiling. The young men we try to talk to, they feel they’re being picked on, and I tend to agree with that.”

And the stories that go along with these arrests wouldn’t be tolerated by wealthier residents, who’d have more access to legal help.

“We defense lawyers call it ‘The Story’—’the guy was standing on the corner, I drove down the street at 30 miles an hour, I came within 10 feet, and he dropped it,'” says [Frank] Edwards, a former Cook County prosecutor and judge who has been in private practice for the last 15 years.

It’s fair to say Edwards questions the veracity of these narratives. “People are so stupid that they pull drugs out of their pockets and throw it onto the ground in front of the police,” he says facetiously. “At least half the cases are like this.”

Public defenders have their own terminology. “It’s called a drop case,” says Patrick Reardon, the county’s first assistant public defender. “We looked at the subject, and as he looked at us he reached into his pocket and dropped a bag on the ground with a green leafy substance’—I’ve heard this thousands of times.”

If you’re arrested for marijuana possession and the charges aren’t dropped, it can carry a hefty fine. So is the new ticketing proposal saying that if we’re going to single out one racial demographic for arrests, we should at least be charging them less?

Red-light cameras are one thing. Middle-class white folks get parking tickets and speeding tickets. That’s common. What Dumke and Joravsky are pointing to is a problem with policing and enforcement itself, not just with the punishment.

If the current law is keeping people in jail for a night and then letting them go free, perhaps disgruntled, is it really going to be better to start shaking down poor communities for cash?

Graphic: Chicago Reader

© Community Renewal Society 2011


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  • "Disgruntled" - will you be "disgruntled" when your cellmate STABS YOU TO PH UKKING DEATH???

    I wouldn't want to be in jail for 30 seconds with the type of folks who usually populate jails and prisons.

    And it's a Well Known Fact that the so-called "Guards" CAN'T protect you from SHYT.

    So YES, I would MUCH RATHER get a ticket - than have my life risked by being incarcerated anywhere.

  • In reply to mikep621:

    Hi Mike - You make a great point. Being put in jail for a night is awful, and potentially life-threatening.

    I think that what I was trying to say, and maybe didn't make clear enough, is that McCarthy isn't really proposing a solution that fixes the underlying problem. If police are targeting certain communities and certain people because of their race, that's wrong. So saying, "We'll still continue to target you because of your race, but it won't be as bad," is pretty lame.

    Plus, I wonder what happens when you can't pay your ticket or tickets. Does the city take your car? Take you to court? There's some pretty dire financial consequences on people who are already hurting money-wise.

    But, I agree with you. Jail is no picnic. It may not cost you money, but it may cost you your life.

  • In reply to mikep621:

    Or, you could just avoid being incarcerated by OBEYING THE LAW.

    Let's all cry for the criminals who are getting arrested for committing crimes.

  • It sounds like, unlike muckraking, you are just trying to find sympathy for one racial group, using very questionable sociological research. This is about the third of fourth story in a row along that vein.

    Unless you are going to make an argument that equal protection requires arresting white people for smoking dope,* to save those like Amy Winehouse who might have died of emphysema from smoking pot instead of tobacco, get off it. Just legalize and tax it, just like this state does cigarettes, booze, and gambling. Yes, as the Wirtz lawsuit proves, the state is depending on drunks to build schools.

    *That isn't going to take care of Preckwinkle's and Dart's jail overcrowding problem.

  • In reply to jack:

    Hi Jack -

    What's the questionable sociological research you're referring to? The Reader article?

  • In reply to MeganCottrell:

    That you* claim to be investigators, but don't do any original research.

    Yeah, the Reader article, the King County survey on the supposed cost of produce (apparently at the Pike Place Market and then trying to shoehorn that into Chicago), Brown University on The Jeffersons, the U of C SSA on undocumented youth, etc.

    At least according to Britannica Online and other sources, "The muckrakers provided detailed, accurate journalistic accounts of the political and economic corruption" and the term is usually associated with investigative journalism.

    To bring this home, a lot of sources cite the Sun-Times on Hired Trucks, but the Sun-Times actually raked muck by investigating that story.

    You don't investigate, but cite sources. Whether the sociological research is accurate or not may be one issue, but the fact is that you rely on it. Maybe the blog should be retitled "The Oak Park Sociology Review." That would be more honest.

    *Being used in the collective sense, since there are multiple contributors.

  • In reply to jack:

    Fair point, Jack. However, this is our blog. Most of the contributors, including Micah and myself, are responsible for a post every day, making it pretty much impossible that we post our own new research every single day of the week. Our blog brings highlights of the issues we cover, including some original research, but also referencing other sources.

    Actually, if you'd been reading the most recent posts, it was an investigation from the Chicago Reporter that led to the city changing its laws on vacant properties, making banks pay for the empty properties they let sit and rot.

    Our most recent cover story, done by yours truly, is an investigation of the state's minority and women-owned business contracting program, finding that the state may be inflating it's numbers, saying they're meeting their standards when they really aren't.

    I could give you an exhaustive list of all the stories we've done, uncovering political and economic corruption, but I wouldn't want to belabor the point.

    Investigative journalism takes time and resources. It's not something you can whip out of your pocket every day. We are investigative journalists covering public affairs through the lens of race and poverty. We do have original reporting and investigations on the blog. They're just not every article. Maybe if you'd like to see more of that, you'd consider making a donation? Because that's what we love and are trained to do.

  • In reply to MeganCottrell:

    "We are investigative journalists covering public affairs through the lens of race and poverty."

    The "through the lens" makes the other point I made in my first post, i.e. "to find sympathy for one racial group."

    I see the links to the investigations were to The Chicago Reporter, not this blog, However, if you want to take credit for the foreclosure ordinance, you should also cf. my comment to that blog post that it may be unenforceable against national banks and federal instrumentalities ... which correlates to a point in my comment to the Schakowsky post and confirmed by your investigation--sociologists taking pride in the ineffective.

    Anyway, I stand on my point that the blog should be renamed, regardless of whatever The Chicago Reporter itself does.

  • Maybe the reason more blacks are charged with possession, is because the drugs are found on them when being processed for another crime. The police usually don't stop you and check for pot, unless your stupid enough to be smoking it out in the open. But when your being frisked for some other crime, they find it, ...bonus for the police.

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