A New, Safer Chicago? End the Grass Gap

The targeting of Black people in Chicago for minor marijuana possession is not making our city a safer place.

There is not a weekend that goes by without national reports of gun violence in communities across the city. Many of these communities are sites of years of neglect, public school closures and mass unemployment. Many public officials and community leaders continue to offer band-aid solutions while ignoring structural factors such as poverty, cyclical unemployment and displacement.

For Black Chicagoans, the reality is deeply personal and riddled with contradictions. On the one hand we are losing our children, neighbors and comrades to gun violence. On the other hand, our communities are targeted for hyper-surveillance, and not for much needed resources like good public schools, trauma centers or job opportunities.

If Chicago’s policymakers and decision makers are committed to building a new and safer Chicago where all of its residents can thrive, taxpayer dollars must be spent on what our most vulnerable communities need. Right now, the city’s budget prioritizes policing over real community development.

Each year, taxpayers spend at least $78 million in court costs and thousand of police hours for marijuana arrests. This irresponsible use of local tax dollars would be better used in anti-violence measures known to work including good public schools and job opportunities.

Marijuana arrests account for the majority of all arrests in Chicago. These arrests are concentrated in Black communities.

This demonstrates a racial profiling policy that has created what is called a “grass gap.” The “grass gap” refers to the disproportionate ratio of Black people arrested for marijuana possession when compared to white people, despite the fact that people across all races use marijuana at similar rates.

What we have here in Chicago is the criminalization of Black people.

The idea that Black people are criminal, a narrative pushed by the law, media and public perceptions, in Chicago is not new. Criminalization manifests each time a Black person is assumed to be a criminal, and therefore punished, regardless of whether they have actually broken a law. It also happens when our communities are targeted for over-policing and hyper-surveillance practices.

Former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy publicly supported a practice that prioritizes ticketing over arrests. However, we know that Black people are also disproportionally targeted for tickets which can range from $250-$500 each.

The Chicago Police Department follows a practice that allows police officers, who work within an inherent racist system, to unjustly target Black individuals and communities for minor marijuana possession. The Chicago Police Department and its leadership has the power to end this costly and unjust practice. And they should do so now.