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Pot Enforcement 'Uneven, Unjust,' Says Roosevelt University Study

By Ted Cox | May 19, 2014 12:07am
 African-Americans are much more likely than whites to be arrested in Chicago rather than receive a ticket for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
African-Americans are much more likely than whites to be arrested in Chicago rather than receive a ticket for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
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DOWNTOWN — Marijuana enforcement at the city and state level is "uneven, unjust" and "fundamentally flawed," according to a study released Monday by Roosevelt University.

"Patchwork Policy: An Evaluation of Arrests and Tickets for Marijuana Misdemeanors in Illinois," from the university's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, says the state is not making full use of decriminalization laws, while cities enforce those laws erratically, both from town to town and among different races within the same town.

"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. "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."

 Chicago is one of the worst offenders when it comes to uneven enforcement of marijuana laws, according to a new study.
Chicago is one of the worst offenders when it comes to uneven enforcement of marijuana laws, according to a new study.
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Flickr/Coleen Danger

Chicago passed decriminalization in August 2012, joining 100 state municipalities in making it permissible to ticket for a misdemeanor offense rather than forcing an arrest.

Yet, according to the study, low-level pot arrests persist statewide, but especially in Chicago. In spite of the new law, pot arrests for misdemeanor possession dropped just 21 percent in 2013 in the city, where 93 percent of such cases resulted in arrests, and only 7 percent in tickets.

The 21 percent drop in arrests was the smallest in the state for municipalities adopting decriminalization; Evanston had the largest decrease at 46 percent.

The study said Chicago pot cases resulted in 14 arrests for every ticket, twice the state average.

The study also blamed Chicago for making Cook County the top U.S. county for marijuana arrests in 2010.

"We expected cities to issue many more tickets and for arrests to decrease much more significantly," university researcher Marcia Bazan said. "It could be that cities and police departments are not prioritizing ticketing and are instead defaulting to arresting under state law."

Chicago Police spokesman Adam Collins responded that the city is "continuing to make progress" in implementing the marijuana ordinance. He said the percentage of arrests on low-level possession charges had dropped to 86 percent this year.

"There were nearly 5,000 fewer people arrested for low-level [marijuana] possession in 2013 than in 2011," Collins said. "Like any new process, it has taken time to implement the ordinance, and we believe there's certainly much more work to be done on full implementation."

Even more damning, the study suggested, was the racial breakdowns in arrests and ticketing. It found African-Americans statewide were 7.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested rather than ticketed for the same offense. Cook County had one of the highest racial disparities in the nation on that score, and researchers were "surprised" that Chicago's 2013 arrests actually increased in some areas, "predominantly minority neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides."

Fuller Park, East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park had arrest rates that were seven times higher than the citywide average.

"When you are talking about a rate of arrest that is 150 times higher in a Chicago neighborhood like East Garfield Park, as compared to Edison Park, for example, you have to conclude that the system is fundamentally flawed," Kane-Willis said.

The study said the state tied Texas for the top spot nationwide, with 98 percent of all marijuana arrests being for possession, and only 2 percent for more serious offenses such as sales, manufacturing and delivery.

Collins acknowledged different districts had made different use of decriminalization and said the study was helpful in that it pointed out those areas, although he added, "I think we knew the data."

He countered that there are a wide array of circumstances where arrest is mandatory in the city, such as possession near schools and parks, where someone has no identification and, of course, where there's an outstanding arrest warrant.

The study found that municipalities were losing money in the costs of enforcement and leaving money on the table in ticket revenue by emphasizing arrests over decriminalization. It estimated Chicago Police spent between 24,000 and 63,000 hours in 2013 processing pot arrests, at a potential cost of more than $100 million. It estimated the city could make almost $3 million a year in pot fines, instead of the $416,000 generated by 1,100 tickets in 2013.

"We aren’t saving money if we aren’t using the tickets, particularly in Chicago, where 40 percent of the state’s low-level marijuana arrests are being made," Kane-Willis said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy both pushed for decriminalization, with McCarthy estimating that each pot arrest costs four police hours on the job.

"We will continue looking for ways to improve our implementation of the existing [marijuana] ordinance, and possibly even improving the ordinance itself, so our officers can focus on illegal guns and reducing violent crime," McCarthy said Monday.

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