Pot Smokers Could Still Get Ticketed For Toking In Their Own Backyards Despite New Law, CPD Says

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But Chicago cops are being encouraged to explain the new law to residents caught violating it rather than take punitive measures right away, officials say.

Chicagoans caught smoking weed on front porches and in backyards — even high-rise balconies — that are visible to the public could still face fines after the drug is legalized next year, Chicago police say.

But Chicago cops are being encouraged to explain the new law to residents caught violating it rather than take punitive measures right away, particularly in the initial months.

Those provisions are part of a new police directive on how the law allowing recreational pot use should be enforced when it goes into effect statewide Jan. 1. What will be allowed in the city is also spelled out in a new public service announcement from CPD scheduled to be posted to social media Wednesday afternoon.

Because the state legalization law defines a public place as anywhere “a person could reasonably be expected to be observed by others,” citations can be issued to anyone found getting high at parks, schools or on the street. But according to Sgt. Mike Malinowski, the department will also issue citations to users on private porches, balconies or backyards that can easily be seen by neighbors and passersby.

Cannabis use will be allowed in fenced-off yards that can’t be seen from the street and balconies that are blocked off from adjoining units. However, Malinowski said people smoking weed on a high-rise balcony could potentially be ticketed if neighbors have an unobstructed view of them.

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police initially offered up a different reading of the law in an online legalization guide for police brass that discusses whether Illinoisans will be allowed to smoke pot on porches and in backyards.

“The language of the statute seems ambiguous on this point,” the guide states. “However, the answer seems to be yes” — residents will be allowed to do so on private porches and in their yards.

Ed Wojcicki, the association’s executive director, said a review of the issue is underway, adding that he is currently trying to determine where prosecutors stand.

“We really wanna be on the same page across the state about this,” Wojciki said. “We don’t want to be in disagreement with other agencies. That would be bad for the public.”

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, nevertheless raised concerns about the CPD policy. He noted that the law shouldn’t be enforced against those using cannabis in places that are “clearly out of the view of the street,” like backyards and enclosed porches.

“The spirit of the law and the letter of the law in terms of the state law is the notion that as long as whatever behavior is happening is out of public view, it wouldn’t be subject to any kind of punishment,” Yohnka said. “Because they’re expanding what is sort of the spirit of the law, it just provides for more opportunities for enforcement.”

Yohnka also worries that ticketing and enforcement related to cannabis will continue to disproportionately affect people of color. Though the number of pot arrests has plummeted since the city decriminalized weed, a Sun-Times analysis last year found that African-Americans continued to bear the brunt of that enforcement.

Cops encouraged to be corrective
Malinowski said officers are being advised to avoid ticketing offenders and instead “nudge them in the right direction” by offering information about the law and where they can legally get stoned.

“Officers should take that opportunity to provide corrective instruction instead of enforcement action,” he said. “We’re going to treat [cannabis] like cigarettes or alcohol.”

Paul Stewart, an advisor to Mayor Lori, said the mayor’s office is working with the CPD to ensure that officers are engaging with and educating the community about marijuana during the initial months of legalization. He said cops shouldn’t be “going into individuals’ backyards” to enforce pot offenses.

“We don’t want to fall back into the same pattern of over-enforcement,” said Stewart, who noted that tickets should be reserved for individuals whose cannabis use has become a “nuisance” to others.

An ordinance introduced by Lightfoot and approved last month by the City Council dramatically scaled-back penalties for public pot smokers. While first-time offenders caught using weed in public currently face fines ranging from $250 to $500, they will soon face a fine of $50, with subsequent offenses within 30 days triggering a $100 fine.

The mayor’s plan also ends the department’s policy of impounding cars found with a legal amount of cannabis — although pot use will still be prohibited in vehicles. The ordinance was rewritten to allow impoundment of vehicles used to buy cannabis illegally after Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) claimed the mayor’s original version hindered cops’ ability to enforce other drug laws.

Malinowski noted that officers will continue enforcing illegal cannabis sales that take place on the street, namely in open air drug markets that are largely clustered around the Eisenhower Expressway on the West Side.

“We’re still going to be chasing these guys down, conducting investigations and locking people up,” Malinwoski said. “Adjustments will be made as necessary to keep violent crime down and pursue those making illegal sales.”