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CHICAGO (Reuters) - A Chicago alderman proposed an ordinance on Wednesday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in a move supporters say would help raise city revenue and free up police to pursue more serious crimes.
But Chicago's Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he could not support the idea, introduced at a city council meeting, until he had studied it further.
"The issue has two parts to it, not one," Emanuel told reporters. "The first part, which is what's motivating people, is the issue of the cost to the system -- arresting, overtime, court, jail. Then there's also the criminal justice side."
Emanuel said he is asking Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy to examine the issue and look at problems encountered by other cities that have tried decriminalization.
"I want to look at it from both sides and be thoughtful," Emanuel said.
Alderman Danny Solis, who introduced the measure, said he expected at least two public hearings on the issue before the council votes on it, with testimony from police officials and other experts.
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, have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a lobby group working to legalize the drug.
"There's nothing aberrational about what Chicago is trying to do," St. Pierre said.
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," Ronshausen said. "It's not as harmless as the pro-drug lobby would have you believe."
She said decriminalization would also result 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 Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno, a supporter of the proposed ordinance, said that anti-marijuana laws were used against minorities in Chicago more than whites, though whites use the drug as much as African-Americans and Latinos.
For example, the West Side's 28th ward, which is mostly African-American led the city with 12,270 marijuana arrests for less than 30 grams since 2001, according to information provided by supporters of the proposed ordinance. By contrast, a ward containing the upscale, hipster neighborhood of Wicker Park had just 719 arrests in the same time frame.
Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston