By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Cook County State's Attorney in Chicago plans to change how it handles low-level drug offenses, which will include the dismissal of future misdemeanor marijuana cases, a spokeswoman said on Sunday.
Misdemeanor marijuana cases for possession of small amounts of the drug, which totaled 15,000 cases last year, will be dismissed for those with less than three arrests or citations, said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.
Cook County includes the nation's third-largest city and many surrounding suburbs.
Alvarez plans to discuss the reforms at a news conference on Monday. The primary focus will be a "first of its kind" alternative prosecution program designed for repeat low-level drug offenders that will divert them out of the criminal justice system, the prosecutor's office said in a statement.
A program will be designed for non-violent individuals charged with Class 4 felony possession of controlled substances and link repeat offenders with social service agencies for treatment, rather than pursuing criminal penalties, the prosecutor's office said.
Last year, Class 4 felony drug possession cases accounted for 25 percent of all felony cases in Cook County.
The proposal comes as a growing number of U.S. states have relaxed marijuana laws. Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states, and voters have approved the drug for recreational use in four states and Washington, D.C.
Public opinion has also shifted toward legalizing marijuana in recent years, with nearly half of Americans supporting full legalization, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
Chicago decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2012, allowing violators to be ticketed instead of arrested if they are caught with 15 grams (.05 ounces) or less.
In supporting the ordinance, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said it would free up more police officers to focus on more serious crimes.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Michael Perry)