Rahm Emanuel Catching Flak for Wanting to Soften Drug Penalties

By Desiree Bowie 10/06/14

The Mayor of Chicago has ruffled the feathers of suburban law enforcement over a proposal to lessen punishment for low-level drug offenders.

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is experiencing blowback from the suburbs after proposing to lessen the penalties for all low-level drug possession.

Emanuel stated last week that he wanted state legislation to change of one gram or less of any controlled substance to a misdemeanor from a Class 4 felony, the latter of which can bring prison time and lessen the chances of future employment. He said his new proposal would be an efficient and compassionate way to deal with addiction while freeing the police to deal with more serious crimes.

But suburban law enforcement vehemently disagreed with Emanuel. "The north suburbs are seeing a very serious heroin epidemic and an alarming increase in heroin overdose deaths," said Des Plaines police Chief William Kushner, who spent nearly 30 years in the Chicago Police Department. "It's an equal-opportunity killer that does not discriminate, and if we allow any kind of possession of heroin to be a misdemeanor, shame on our society."

Emanuel is facing re-election in February and is turning his political intentions from the war on drugs to gun control. He wants state lawmakers to require mandatory prison sentences for illegal gun possession, which he says would help stem the city's violence. His effort stalled a year ago when he lost the support of African American legislators.  Political observers believe that Emanuel is choosing to add the drug measure so that he can win the support of African American legislators who do not want to see the future of young people destroyed by minor drug charges.

Since Jan. 1, 23.4% of all enforcement for possession of small amounts of marijuana has been by ticket—with blacks, whites, and Hispanics being ticketed almost evenly. Emanuel wants the general assembly to decriminalize possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana and reducing from a felony to a misdemeanor the penalty for possession one gram or less of any controlled substance.

“Thirteen other states already have laws on the books similar to what I’m proposing and there is no higher rate of drug [use] in these states as a result,” Emanuel said. “It’s time to free up our resources for truly violent offenders who pose a bigger threat to the safety of our communities. It’s time to allow police officers throughout the state...to keep their focus where it’s needed most.”

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy added, “Studies show that locking people up for an ounce of narcotics does not dissuade them from using narcotics. It’s almost an exercise in futility.”

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Desiree Bowie is a writer and movie lover from Los Angeles, California. Follow her on Twitter @dangerbowie