CHICAGO A group of Chicago aldermen plan to introduce an ordinance at a Wednesday city council meeting that would decriminalize possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Supporters say the measure would help raise revenue for the city, save money and free up police to pursue more serious crimes.
Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey said the city's 23,000 annual arrests for small amounts of marijuana cost the county $80 million a year, even though 90 percent of the cases are thrown out.
"At a time when the city is searching for ways to maximize the resources of the police, it doesn't make sense to lose 80,000 man-hours a year for cases that are being dismissed," Fritchey said.
If the plan passes, people caught in Chicago with 10 grams or less of marijuana would get a $200 ticket, instead of facing a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in prison.
Fourteen states and some U.S. municipalities, including Seattle, Washington, have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a lobbying group working to legalize the drug.
"There's nothing aberrational about what Chicago is trying to do," said St. Pierre.
He said the recession is one reason marijuana reforms have become more popular, because of the amount of money local governments have to spend on enforcement.
Opponents of decriminalization believe it normalizes drug use, said Amy Ronshausen, manager of congressional and legislative affairs for the Drug Free America Foundation.
"If you're normalizing drug use, it means users are going to use it more," said Ronshausen. "It's not as harmless as the pro-drug lobby would have you believe."
She said decriminalization also results in loss of opportunity for intervention.
St. Pierre said Ohio decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in the 1970s, and people there did not as a result use the drug more than the rest of the country.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was not immediately available for comment regarding the decriminalization proposal.
Chicago Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno, a supporter of the proposed ordinance, said in a Huffington Post editorial that anti-marijuana laws are used against minorities in Chicago more than whites, though whites use the drug as much as African-Americans and Latinos.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)