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An ordinance that would make possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana subject to City of Evanston Administrative Adjudication and a fine rather than state charges, and the criminal record that follows state charges, passed out of the Human Services Committee on Nov. 7. The measure now proceeds to City Council later this month.
The prior ordinance allowed the either the issuance of a City citation or state misdemeanor charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Either the arresting police officer, or in some cases the juvenile authorities, would then decide which type of charges to issue, said Chief of Police Richard Eddington. The amended ordinance would remove discretion for possession of 10 grams or less and require all such cases to proceed through City’s administrative adjudication program, which does not carry with it a permanent criminal record.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl proposed the change, saying that during her Safe Summer Summit she heard from many 18-25- year-olds and from Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes that what people want and need are jobs. Often what holds them back is a criminal record, said the Mayor.
Mayor Tisdahl cited City of Evanston job applications that ask if a job-seeker has ever used alcohol or marijuana. If the answer is yes then “fine. But if you say you’ve been arrested, you cannot” be hired. A criminal record can follow you for life,” said Reverend Richard Mosely Jr. of Hemenway Methodist Church.
The Mayor also pointed to a number of studies that have shown that decriminalizing marijuana possession does not lead to increased marijuana use in the community. “We know what we are doing now is harming Evanston youth,” creating criminal records while failing to stop marijuana use. “Please, let’s act now,” she said.
Community members speaking at the meeting presented a wide spectrum of opinion. “The War on Drugs failed,” said community activist Madelyn Ducre. Pot charges “should not be left up to any one office to make decisions,” she said, seeming to support the new measure, but added that large fines could “hinder poor people financially.”
Betty Ester asked, “Is that what we’re trying to tell our kids? If you smoke marijuana it’s like a parking ticket?” While criminal records may or may not impede job applicants, failing a drug test absolutely will, she said.
Maura Mooney of the Evanston Substance Abuse Prevention Counsel and Kate Mahoney of PEER Services both spoke against the proposed ordinance. Ms. Mooney said the result would be a perception that marijuana is “less risky and more socially acceptable.”
Ms. Mahoney urged Council to “slow down a little bit” and examine the ramifications of the change. Holding up a large cigar, she also said that black youth tend to smoke marijuana in “blunts,” or hollowed out cigars. The stogy she presented, far larger than a “Philly’s Blunt,” would hold more than 10 grams, she said. Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, took issue with her characterization and asked for data supporting her claim.
Dickelle Fonda, who said she advised Northeastern Illinois students on a 16-month analysis of arrest patterns that revealed a significantly higher rate of arrest of African Americans for possession than of white offenders, said the ordinance would keep black kids out of the judicial system. Evanston police have had an unofficial “stop and frisk” policy for years, and such stops often result in arrest for possession of small amounts of pot, she said. She urged Council to view the measure as part of a larger discussion about race in Evanston.
Vernon Clark, assistant principal at Evanston Township High School, said that the high school appeared “not to support or take a position on the ordinance but to clarify what we do and will continue to do.” It is high school policy to discipline students found in possession of small amounts of pot through the school rather than refer them to the police. “Small amounts” was later defined as “about 10 grams” by Sam Pettineo, head of safety at ETHS.
“Let me be very emphatic. ETHS is saying that smoking marijuana is illegal,” Mr. Clark stated. “There will be consequences for anyone who is under the influence or in possession of marijuana. We are not bending,” he added. Education, counseling and corrective discipline come first in order to minimize the long-term consequences, however. There are about 90 cases of possession per year at the high school, school officials said.
“You can’t sit on the toilet [at ETHS] without seeing the message right in front of you” that drugs are not tolerated, said Alderman Jan Grover, 7th Ward. She said that the proposed ordinance would align City policy with ETHS policy. She proposed an amendment that would add community service or drug treatment or counseling as possible dispositions along with a fine at administrative adjudication. The amendment passed.
Ald. Braithwaite said, “As a parent, I do not feel we are communicating that it is okay to smoke marijuana.”
He said that he supported the ordinance but agreed with Ms. Fonda that it should be part of a larger conversation.
Chief Eddington, responding to questions from Ms. Mahoney and Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said that it was his belief that writing a cannabis citation to a juvenile would require that parents be notified. “The trigger for parental notification is the police taking custody,” he said. Detaining someone long enough to write a citation would constitute “taking custody,” he said, though he admitted it could be subject to interpretation.
Chief Eddington said that if the City decided “to make this policy decision [it should examine] the current pay rate on cannabis tickets issued… what’s the follow up, if any.” When the police issue a City citation for cannabis, only about a third actually show up for their hearing and pay the fine, he said. “A sizeable number of citizens are ignoring citations,” he said.
In an earlier interview, Chief Eddington said that he would prefer that his officers maintain the discretion to either write a City citation or charge an offense under the state statute. While he said he agreed with the Mayor’s focus on youth and jobs, there are times when state charges make sense. As an example, at the Nov. 7 Human Services Committee meeting, he said that just that afternoon police responding to a man with a gun call picked up four persons, and through those interviews cleared three pending cases including a burglary, robbery, and criminal damage to property. “As we work through these matters, it’s very individualized decision making,” he said.
When it came time to vote, there was no dissent. The proposed ordinance, as amended, goes to City Council with a unanimous recommendation from the Committee. Whether the Citations, once issued, will result in paid fines remains to be seen.