Will Illinois be 17th state to decriminalize marijuana? Rahm Emanuel in favor.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called on Illinois state lawmakers Tuesday to reduce penalties for marijuana possession, a move that mirrors a national trend toward more-lenient pot laws.  

Jim Young/Reuters
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, shown here at an April event, on Tuesday spoke to lawmakers on the state's Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing to decriminalize marijuana possession across Illinois and make it a misdemeanor instead of a felony to possess one gram or less of any controlled substance. For those caught with small amounts of marijuana, this would mean receiving a ticket instead of being arrested. 

The push is in keeping with Mr. Emanuel's 2012 backing of a reform to a Chicago law in which police can issue a fine of between $250 and $500 for possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana, as opposed to making an arrest.

Emanuel made the plea for such measures to be enacted statewide before a committee of state lawmakers Tuesday. The Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee is holding preliminary hearings to overhaul the state's criminal code. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy also addressed the committee.

"It is time to put our sentencing policies in line with our values, reduce penalties for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses so we don't put people in prison who need drug treatment," Emanuel said before the lawmakers.

Reducing drug penalties, he said, would free up police to focus on street violence. The number of homicides in Chicago per year has often been the highest among US cities.

Also, Emanuel administration officials told the Chicago Tribune that the call for reduced marijuana penalties is a factor as the mayor hopes to get African-American lawmakers on board with a plan for tougher gun penalties.

"The key issue is we really want comprehensive reform, and we want to reallocate resources we're spending now on nonviolent, low-level offenders, so we can focus more on violent crime," an Emanuel administration official told the Tribune. 

In May, a study conducted by Roosevelt University in Illinois, examining the implementation of the 2012 decriminalization ordinance, criticized Chicago police, finding them still more likely to arrest people found with small amounts of marijuana as opposed to ticketing them. 

"We believe that the implementation of the pot-ticket ordinance in Chicago and other municipalities across the state is uneven, incomplete, unjust and expensive," said Kathleen Kane-Willis, lead author of the study, in May. "The state is failing when it comes to marijuana policy, particularly when considering that a majority of Illinois residents support ticketing for people who have small amounts of marijuana."

That study found that in 2013, between 24,000 and 63,000 hours were probably spent by Chicago police on making misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession, resulting in costs ranging from $25 million to $116 million. Reducing those arrests by half could save up to $58 million, the study said. And issuing tickets instead of making arrests could raise about $2.9 million for the city, as opposed to the roughly $416,250 that was raised from tickets in 2013. 

Emanuel's move comes amd a broader movement in marijuana legalization. Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana possession, and two states have legalized retail sales, according to NORML, a group lobbying to legalize the drug. 

Emanuel's proposal is "consistent with both Democratic and Republican efforts at the state levels to reduce prison populations," NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre said.

A recent survey of more than 450,000 US adults conducted by CivicScience over the past two years found that 58 percent were in favor of marijuana legalization in their state, while 35 percent oppose it. 

In April, the Pew Research Center published similar results, saying that 54 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, up from 52 percent in 2013. 

Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use, is expected to take in $60 million to $70 million in 2014 from the tax revenue of legal pot sales, according to the Denver Business Journal. 

And an analysis Monday by NerdWallet, a personal finance site, says that if all states legalized marijuana, the United States would generate more than $3 billion in state and local taxes per year. California alone would realize more than $500 million. 

In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that out of 1.5 million drug arrests made across the nation in 2011, roughly 750,000 were for marijuana, or 49.5 percent. An analysis conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union found similar results in 2010 and noted that blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. In Illinois, the Roosevelt University study found blacks to be 7.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana charges. 

 Material from Reuters was used in this report. 

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