Law Enforcement Prepares For Legal Cannabis in Illinois

As Illinois prepares to legalize recreational marijuana, one group preparing for a cultural sea-change is the very group responsible for enforcing the new rules.

“We are used to enforcing the law,” said Leo Schmitz, chief of Public Safety for the Cook County Sheriff’s Police. “If this is no longer on the books, we will adapt just as the other states did, and we will do what we need to do to make sure that the law is complied with.”

Colorado State Patrol Trooper Jeremiah Sharp had exactly that experience nearly six years ago. One day, cannabis was illegal in his state, the next day it was legal, as Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.

“It took a little getting used to, that’s for sure,” Sharp told NBC 5, as he wheeled through the mountains west of Fort Collins. But he was quick to point out that traffic enforcement still centers heavily on watching for impaired drivers. And legalization did not make it legal to drive stoned.

“You know, if you’re under the influence of it and it’s affecting the way you can drive, you shouldn’t be driving,” he said. “When you smell it, you know what to ask.”

Enforcement of DUI laws is one thing when it comes to alcohol. After all, breathalyzers have been standard for decades.

But there is no approved breathalyzer for cannabis.

“We use our standard roadside maneuvers,” Sharp said. “We’d look at the eyes, we’d have them walk a straight line, and stand with a foot raised in the air. And then we would go to a blood test as far as our testing procedures are concerned, to identify delta 9 THC in the blood.”

But it’s not always an easy call, ater all, not everyone consuming cannabis smokes it. And as edibles become more and more popular, officers have to use other means of detecting impairment.

“It forces the officer to slow down, ask more questions, make more observations, and collect more evidence,” Sharp told NBC 5. “It’s going to take more time to get the evidence we need to show that someone shouldn’t have been driving.”

But make no mistake, cannabis is now mainstream in Colorado. So much so, that the beautification programs on some of the very roadways Sharp patrols, are sponsored by marijuana companies.

“For a lot of people, it’s just something that blends into the horizon for them in their day to day life,” he says. “And they don’t necessarily give it a second thought.”

Chicago police will be tackling day one of that cultural shift on Jan. 1, but the slow march to legalization has actually been unfolding in Chicago for many years.

“We have been baby-stepping towards this for a good while now,” said CPD Sgt. Michael Malinowski, noting possession transitioned to a municipal ticket a few years ago. “If there was a drug that could progressively become legal, cannabis would be that drug.”

Still, possession of under 30 grams of cannabis flower will be legal in Chicago and the rest of Illinois in 2020.

“We’re going to work diligently over the next couple of months, to make sure that officers are ready to correctly enforce and apply the law,” said Brandon Nemec, deputy director of legal affairs for Chicago police. “If you possess over the legal limits, the criminal penalties that have existed, pre-legalization, will still apply.”

On Wednesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced an ordinance, which outlines new fines for those penalties, dropping the fine for first-time offenders to just $50.

And what about traffic safety? Back in Colorado, it’s been a mixed bag and because of the difficulty in testing for cannabis, officials caution they still don’t have a clear picture. Fatalities where cannabinoids were present, are up. In fact, more than double the number in 2013, the year before legalization. That number peaked at 139 in 2017, and was down to 115 last year.

Chicago police say they are hopeful there may be one benefit from legalization that many don’t talk about-- fewer potential customers for drug dealers.

“This provides opportunities for citizens who are interested in consuming THC to go somewhere legally to purchase it,” says CPD’s Malinowski. “And hopefully, avoid those terrible areas where open air drug markets have been a consistent problem.”

Chicago police told NBC 5 their officers will be concentrating on possession limits, not whether someone obtained their drugs legally. And Cook County's Schmitz said public safety will be his department's prime emphasis.

"We worry about taking care of the people," he said.  "We don't want them to be impacted adversely by any law."

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