Majority of aldermen support marijuana ordinance

Marshall Cohen

A city proposal to decriminalize possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is poised to become law as the Nov. 28 council vote approaches, according to conversations with a majority of the Evanston aldermen this week.

Current law states anyone found in possession of 2.5 to 10 grams of cannabis can be ticketed, fined up to $1,500 and jailed for as much as six months.

If the ordinance is passed, people caught with less than 10 grams of the drug would be ticketed but would not face a criminal charge that could lead to jail time.

In conversations with The Daily, five of the nine aldermen indicated their support for the ordinance, proposed originally by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl in late September.

Alds. Peter Braithwaite (2nd), Mark Tendam (6th) and Jane Grover (7th) said they were solidly in favor of the ordinance while Alds. Melissa Wynne (3rd) and Donald Wilson (4th) both said they were leaning toward supporting it.

Furthermore, when the proposal came up for a vote at the Nov. 7 Human Services Committee meeting, Alds. Judy Fiske (1st) and Delores Holmes (5th) voted in favor.

Neither Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) nor Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th) responded to multiple phone messages and emails seeking comment throughout the week.

Wilson said he supports the ordinance because he does not want the records of people who commit what he considers a “somewhat modest criminal violation” to be permanently tarnished.

“A one-time violation by someone with that level of possession could be a teenager or someone in college,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t want to see people suffer the long-term consequences of something that might just be short-term misconduct.”

Similarly, Braithwaite endorsed the ordinance, emphasizing his hope it will lead to fewer young African Americans entering the legal system.

“I’m definitely very concerned about the number of black teens who end up in the criminal justice system and how that affects their futures and abilities to get jobs later in life,” he said.

After the ordinance was amended to include drug counseling, education classes or community service alongside the ticket and fine, Grover decided to throw her full support behind it.

“The ordinance decriminalizes possession of fewer than 10 grams, but it doesn’t trivialize substance abuse of marijuana,” Grover said.

Wynne said she is leaning in favor of supporting the proposed law because it would reduce the “enormous amount of police time” devoted to administrative work.

“There is a high amount of paperwork and time that is spent going to court,” Wynne said. “It’s not just the arrest but then the processing and follow-through that take a lot of time.”

Evanston Police Department Cmdr. Tom Guenther said officers currently need to fill out a field report, arrest report and official complaint after making an arrest for possession of less than 10 grams.

He agreed it would “free up officers” if they could issue tickets instead of arresting people and writing additional reports.

“There are times when our job entails further documentation, and it does take time,” Guenther said. “If the ordinance allows for less of our time to be involved in paperwork then that is what we will do.”

Tisdahl originally introduced the ordinance last month and defended it at the Nov. 7 committee meeting, touting the success of similar laws in nearby areas.

“I looked at ordinances in other cities that have ordinances that do not make you a criminal if you use 10 grams or less of marijuana, which is a very small amount,” Tisdahl said.

She pointed to a similar ordinance passed by Cook County in 2009 that changed the law for unincorporated parts of the county so people caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana would get a ticket instead of a criminal charge.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who represents Evanston on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, said he supports Tisdahl’s decriminalization efforts and said the Cook County ordinance has proved worthwhile.

“It has been effective with individuals and we have anecdotal stories confirming that, but we haven’t done an analytical study of it,” Suffredin said.

Since it was passed, the Cook County ordinance has been expanded to cover jurisdictions in the county that do not have their own police force, such as Ford Heights.

“We’re hoping this prevents people from making a bigger mistake and having a criminal record,” Suffredin said. “We want to give people a chance to straighten themselves out.”

In nearby Skokie, city officials voted in October to allow minors under 18 to be ticketed instead of arrested if they are caught with 2.5 grams or less of marijuana, ending the practice of legally treating 17-year-olds like adults and not juveniles.

Officer Tammy Jacobsen, a Skokie Police Department spokeswoman, said the city wanted to match Skokie village ordinances to state law, which was amended two years ago to raise the juvenile cutoff from 17 to 18 for certain non-violent crimes.

“We can no longer take 17-year-olds in and send them to the big boy jail because now they’re juveniles, so we give them a village ordinance citation,” Jacobsen said.

At the committee meeting, Tisdahl also cited a 1989 study about the impact of marijuana decriminalization as evidence against the argument that the proposed ordinance would lead to increased marijuana use.

Eric Single, a former professor at the University of Toronto, conducted the study and had it published in the Journal of Public Health Policy. In an email to The Daily, he said it was “gratifying that this research is being used in policy debates,” but declined further comment due to ill health.

His study concluded trends of marijuana use are “relatively unaffected” by existing criminal laws against possession. “One would expect decriminalization to result in minimal changes in the number of users,” according to the study.

Tendam, an Evanston alderman, said the proposed ordinance is part of “a broader trend” to gradually scale back marijuana possession laws.

“Ultimately we’re going in a good direction and being consistent with a trend that is progressive and very wise,” Tendam said.

The Evanston City Council will vote on the proposed ordinanc
e during their Nov. 28 meeting at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center.

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