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Panel backs plan to lessen pot penalties

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Aldermen on Evanston's Human Services Committee voted unanimously Monday in favor of a new ordinance that would let persons caught with small amounts of marijuana avoid having a criminal record.

Aldermen on Evanston's Human Services Committee voted unanimously Monday in favor of a new ordinance that would let persons caught with small amounts of marijuana avoid having a criminal record.

Under the proposal, all persons stopped by police and found to have 10 grams or less of marijuana in their possession would be issued a traffic-ticket-like violation notice ordering them to appear for a hearing in the city's administrative adjudication system.

Currently some such cases are handled in administrative adjudication while in other instances persons caught with the same quanity of marijuana are prosecuted in district court in Skokie, where a conviction results in a criminal record.

Police Chief Richard Eddington told aldermen Monday that officers issued 98 citations for cannabis possession in fiscal year 2010 while 50 cases involving possession of 10 grams or less were heard in district court.

Top: Kate Mahoney showing aldermen a cigar that could be turned into a marijuana blunt. Above: Police Chief Richard Eddington waiting to speak at the committee meeting.

Eddington said the decision about how to prosecute a case involves "very individualized decision making, involving the suspect's history, the circumstances involved in the arrest and any other charges pending."

Fines for possession of marijuana under the ordinance would remain at their current level — a range from $50 to $500.

At the suggestion of Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, the  committee voted to add options for the administrative hearing officer to impose requirements for drug counseling or treatment programs and community service obligations on violators in addition to the fine.

Alderman Jane Grover, whose amendment to the proposed ordinance was approved.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl has pushed for the ordinance change, saying that having young people end up with criminal records as a result of being caught with small amounts of marijuana makes it extremely difficult for them to get jobs and become productive members of society.

She also suggested that shifting to issuing tickets would free up police time that then could be devoted to dealing with serious criminals.

Before the vote, Vernon Clark, associate principal of educational services at Evanston Township High School, said school officials were not taking a position on the ordinance.

Vernon Clark of ETHS.

He said students found at school with small amounts of marijuana are subject to schoool discipline, but not reported to police.

"We only involve police when we find large amounts, which seems to be congruent with the mayor's proposal," Clark said.

He stressed that marijuana use is against school rules and said it leads students to make risky and dangerous decisions.

He also argued that gangs get a foothold in schools through drug dealing and said school officials don't want that activity on or near the campus.

Dickelle Fonda

Dickelle Fonda, of 1220 Darrow Ave., said student researchers she supervised at Northeastern Illinois University found that lots of black kids are stopped and frisked by police and found with small amounts of marijuana.

Their lives often go on a downward spiral from there, Fonda said, suggesting that the revised ordinance would at least keep them from ending up enmeshed in the judicial system.

The student research, based on Freedom of Information Act requests, indicated that such arrests in Evanston clustered around the high school and along Howrd Street.

Kate Mahoney, of 2538 Gross Point Road, said the ordinance might not set the right cutoff point for sending cases to district court.

Mahoney said that while white youngsters often smoke marijuana cigarettes that contain less than 10 grams of pot, black youths tend to use blunts, hollowed out cigars filled with marijuana, that could contain more than the limit.

The ordinance now goes to the full City Council for consideration expected at the council's Nov. 28 meeting.

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