CRYSTAL LAKE – The Crystal Lake Police Department is recommending changes to the city’s marijuana policy that would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.
Under the proposed ordinance, police officers could issue a ticket for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana rather than make a misdemeanor arrest. The tickets carry a fine of between $500 and $1,000, but would allow offenders to avoid criminal conviction or jail.
Marijuana would remain illegal in Crystal Lake, just as it is under state and federal law.
Police officers still would be able to arrest any offender for possession, but they also would have the discretion to issue a ticket, Crystal Lake Police Chief David Linder wrote in a memo to the City Council. Last year, Linder’s department made more than 50 misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession.
“These arrests involve a great amount of time dedicated by our patrol officers,” Linder wrote. “As a result, a crime that can be relatively minor can take several hours to process. If, however, officers were able to ticket offenders for cannabis possession, this would increase the amount of time our officers are patrolling.”
The Crystal Lake City Council is set to vote on the ordinance at a meeting at 7:30 p.m. today at City Hall, 100 W. Woodstock St. It was unclear Monday whether it would get enough votes to pass.
“We’re going to need to have a discussion as a city council,” Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley said. “I’m not sure how this will come out.”
The mayor said he was concerned about possible “unintended consequences.”
“It’s not cut-and-dried,” Shepley said. “You could argue that this is decriminalizing minor amounts of marijuana, and I’m not sure that is what the city wants to do.”
Councilman Ralph Dawson said he supports the ticket policy.
“I have no problem with it,” he said. “Right now, we’re tying up our police department with arrests when a ticket will accomplish the same goal.”
Dawson said a ticket and fine would make more sense for first-time offenders than a criminal record or jail time.
“Everyone makes mistakes growing up,” he said.
Councilwoman Carolyn Schofield said Monday that she hadn’t decided how she would vote on the ordinance. However, she said she would rely heavily on the recommendation of the police chief.
Schofield said the proposed changes were in line with an ordinance the council approved this year governing synthetic drugs, which can be more dangerous than their more natural counterparts.
“If it works for [synthetic drugs], I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for this,” she said.
Council members Brett Hopkins, Jeffrey Thorsen, Ellen Brady Mueller and Cathy Ferguson didn’t return calls from the Northwest Herald seeking comment Monday.
Linder couldn’t be reached for further details about the ordinance, including how the ticket revenue would be used.
Fourteen states and “numerous” municipalities have approved similar decriminalization laws in the past 30 years, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a national nonprofit organization that supports responsible recreational and medical use of marijuana.
“Most police like decriminalization as a clear mid-step between prohibition and legalization,” he said. “Generally – state by state and city by city – there is a movement toward reform.”
In Illinois, cities such as Chicago, Evanston, Aurora, Champaign, Normal, Urbana and Carbondale have softened penalties for marijuana possession, Illinois NORML Executive Director Dan Linn said. Fines for possession vary by town.
Chicago’s new marijuana policy went into effect over the weekend. When the ordinance was approved in June, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said: “We cannot afford to take our officers off the streets for hours at a time only to see over 80 percent of the marijuana cases dismissed in court.”
Chicago’s ordinance allows police to issue tickets of $250 to $500 for possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana. Evanston’s ordinance applies to possession of less than 10 grams.
Thirty grams of marijuana is the equivalent of about 20 cigarette-sized marijuana joints. Under state law, possession of more than 30 grams is a felony.
Decriminalization has become popular, in part because of shifting public opinion and shrinking municipal budgets, Linn said.
A 2011 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. That was up from 12 percent in 1969, when Gallup first asked the question. Even more support decriminalization and medical use of the drug. A 2010 Gallup survey found that 70 percent of people favored making it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana to ease pain.
Money from marijuana possession tickets goes to the town that issues the ticket, rather than to the county, state or courts. Linn said that’s an attractive source of revenue for some cities.
Under Crystal Lake’s proposed ordinance, violators could pay the fine without appearing in front of an administrative law judge in some cases.
If you go
What: Crystal Lake City Council Meeting
At issue: The city’s police department wants to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under a proposed ordinance, police officers would be able to give a ticket to those found in possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana rather than make a misdemeanor arrest.
When: 7:30 p.m. today.
Where: City Hall, 100 W. Woodstock St., Crystal Lake