Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) said in a release on Thursday that he's decided to back a proposal that would decriminalize marijuana possession, lowering the penalty for getting caught with up to 15 grams of the drug to a ticket instead of an arrest.
Emanuel, President Barack Obama's former chief of staff, said he backed the proposal to free up police for more important work, like tracking down violent criminals instead of spending hundreds of hours on misdemeanor arrests.
The proposal, first introduced last year, will require city council approval. Fines for misdemeanor possession would range from $100-$500, whereas current law requires an arrest and places the fine at up to $1,500.
"When the ordinance was first introduced, I asked the Chicago Police Department to do a thorough analysis to determine if this reform balanced public safety and common-sense rules that save taxpayer dollars to reinvest in putting more officers on the street," Emanuel said in prepared text. "The result is an ordinance that allows us to observe the law, while reducing the processing time for minor possession of marijuana – ultimately freeing up police officers for the street."
The mayor's release noted that over 18,000 small possession arrests were made in 2010, but the vast majority of the cases were dismissed.
Emanuel is just the latest mayor to endorse lower penalties for minor drug offenses, and follows New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R), who recently endorsed a decriminalization proposal by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D).
Bloomberg said in a release that he believes decriminalization "strikes the right balance" between reforming policy and still allowing police to make arrests for selling or smoking marijuana in public.
President Obama, similarly, said early in his political career that he favors decriminalization, but he has not acted on that belief as president. His administration has been even more adamant about enforcing federal marijuana laws than his predecessor's, carrying out hundreds of busts in states where voters or officials have approved the drug for medical use.
The American public, by and large, has seen a major shift in attitudes toward marijuana in the last decade, to the point where supporting lower penalties or even outright legalization can be a political boon to politicians. A poll this week by the conservative survey group Rasmussen found that 56 percent believe the drug should be taxed and regulated like alcohol.
Two states, Colorado and Washington state, will vote on outright legalization initiatives in November. Californians defeated a similar measure in 2010. Rhode Island, also, decriminalized marijuana just this week, and Connecticut became the 17th state to legalize the drug for medical use earlier this month. At least seven more states are considering legalizing medical marijuana this year as well.