Change in Evanston marijuana policy results in fewer physical arrests

2012 was the first full year in which marijuana was decriminalized in Evanston. However the drug has still presented the city with multiple challenges.

Photo illustration by Susan Du/Daily Senior Staffer

2012 was the first full year in which marijuana was decriminalized in Evanston. However the drug has still presented the city with multiple challenges.

Ciara McCarthy, Reporter

One year after implementing a new ordinance as part of Evanston’s marijuana policy, the city’s police department has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of physical arrests of those found in possession of marijuana.

In 2011, EPD arrested 147 individuals and issued 119 tickets to those found in violation of Evanston’s marijuana policy. Last year, the first full year of the ordinance’s implementation, only 108 individuals were arrested, with 195 tickets issued. This data covers only individuals who were at least 18 years old.

The Evanston City Council passed Ordinance 92-O-11, amending the city’s marijuana policy, at the end of November 2011. The change in policy allows individuals found with small amounts of cannabis to receive a less severe punishment.

According to the ordinance, individuals found with less than 10 grams of marijuana in their possession will be issued a notice of violation and will appear before Evanston’s Division of Administrative Hearings. Cases involving individuals found with more than 10 grams of marijuana will be resolved at the Second District of the Cook County Circuit Court. Prior to the passage of the ordinance, all arrests involving marijuana, no matter the quantity, were adjudicated on the county level.

EPD Cmdr. Jay Parrott noted that under this policy, an individual found with less than 10 grams could still be arrested, depending on the circumstances. If the cannabis was packaged for sale, the individual in question was a repeat offender or there were other charges, the offender could be arrested no matter the amount of cannabis in their possession.

The idea for the ordinance originated with Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. City employee Godwin Chen, who presented the ordinance to the city council, said it was meant to help young adults and first-time offenders from getting a criminal record. Chen noted that a criminal record prevents many individuals from gaining employment.

“We’re not saying that (marijuana use) is okay, but we don’t want it to stop them from getting jobs,” Chen said last week.

Parrott said the ordinance is working.

In 2012, the EPD filed 303 charges, compared to 266 in 2011. The enforcement of Evanston’s marijuana policy had increased, he said, but in a less intrusive way.

“We want to address the issue properly,” he said. “For individuals not involved in drug sales and in possession of a small amount of marijuana, a ticket is appropriate.”

Kathy Lyons, executive director of the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, said she and her organization are in support of the ordinance because it allowed for a less punitive approach to dealing with non-habitual offenders, one that does not limit future prospects.

“We know what a criminal record can do in terms of holding you back from being an independent and productive member of the community, so we want to prevent young adults from having a criminal record if at all possible,” Lyons said. She added that a criminal record affects not only an individual’s employment but also educational and housing opportunities.

“We’re not really decriminalizing marijuana,” Chen said. “We’re lowering the penalties associated with being found with marijuana.”

Parrott agreed and said the ordinance in no way decriminalized marijuana.

“You can’t decriminalize something that’s a criminal offense,” he said. “We’re just looking at alternative types of enforcement.”