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Are Police In Southern Illinois Ready For 'The Great Unknown' Of Legal Marijuana?

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essygie | Flickr
Law enforcement in southern Illinois face a learning curve for interpreting and carrying out the new recreational marijuana laws.

New laws allowing recreational use of cannabis in Illinois are explicit in their parameters, but local law enforcement agencies are grappling with what one officer called “the great unknown” when it comes to enforcement.

For some departments, there remains the fear of a persistent and unregulated black market. For others, it’s whether or not everyday citizens will even know or follow the law. And for virtually all of them, there’s a deep concern that legalized cannabis and impaired drivers will create a greater threat to public safety.

State, county and municipal law enforcement agencies have been preparing for months in numerous ways, from attending formalized training to reaching out to agencies in states where recreational cannabis use is already legal.

Most agreed that the best practices for enforcing the new standards in the metro-east will come from practical experience of dealing with people who use cannabis and with citizens who aren’t used to the smell of burning weed drifting through their neighborhoods.

“It’s pretty easy to interpret as a law, but there are all kinds of new rules that come with that new law,” said David Hayes, director of the Southwestern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission. “It’s a very dynamic and challenging transformation from what was illegal to what is now legal, and there are all kinds of attached nuances that present themselves with it.”

Driving while high

In the metro-east, police agencies said they are most concerned about the impact legal cannabis will have on the roadways.

“Our biggest challenge is the impaired driving aspect and not having a reliable tool to determine levels of intoxication,” said Collinsville Police Chief Steve Evans.

Evans’ sentiments about testing for impairment were echoed by every police and sheriff’s department contacted by the Belleville News-Democrat since mid-November. As Marissa Police Chief Tom Prather said, a surefire way of collecting evidence of driving under the influence of cannabis is “still up in the air.”

For now, there is no court-approved, officer-operated testing instrument to determine the impairment of someone driving under the influence of cannabis like there is a breathalyzer for alcohol. As such, cannabis-related DUI cases will likely be based heavily on observations by officers and the results of field sobriety testing, O’Fallon Police Capt. David Matevey said.

The state of Illinois has not set a level of intoxication for cannabis, meaning there is no 'legal limit' of intoxication. This could compound the difficulty in pursuing impaired driving cases.

The standardized field sobriety test police used on drunk drivers doesn’t quite work the same for high drivers, a December 2004 study by Australian researchers found. Heavy cannabis users are only mildly sensitive to cannabis induced impairment, but the study found the task impaired drivers are most likely to mess up is one where they’re asked to stand on one leg.

For officers at the scene, documenting their observations will be most important, said Granite City Police Lt. Nick Novacich. Though some cities like Belleville, Collinsville and O’Fallon have specially trained drug recognition experts on their force, most patrol officers are trained to observe frequent effects of the drug.

Those may include inappropriate laughing, muscle tremors and jerky head movements, fatigue and memory problems, droopy eyelids, altered reaction time and other effects.

Officers may pull over drivers for any strange or reckless behaviors, like swerving or speed changes, multiple departments said. Because THC — the chemical in cannabis that makes users feel high — causes pupils to dilate in response to light, one of the most common traffic infractions indicating possible cannabis impairment is driving without headlights at night, Novacich said.

“Whether or not those observations indicate a reasonable suspicion of impairment will dictate if additional investigation is required,” Novacich said.

The state of Illinois has not set a level of intoxication for cannabis, meaning there is no “legal limit” of intoxication. This could compound the difficulty in pursuing impaired driving cases, said Matevey.

At this time, a blood draw is the most effective way to determine the current concentration of THC in the blood. Urine can be collected as well, but it only shows if the user has a history of THC consumption and not necessarily if they are under the influence. If an officer requests a sample be taken, it is then sent off to the Illinois State Police for analysis to determine the level of intoxication. As of November 2019, analysis takes an average of 42 days, ISP Sgt. Delila Garcia said.

ISP is in the process of getting new instruments to expand the service to the Forensic Science Center at Chicago too, said spokeswoman Beth Hundsdorfer. It also is researching saliva-based testing and gathering feedback from other legal states where the technology is already in use, Hundsdorfer said.

“Several states have implemented technology that has shown promise and could be effective here in Illinois,” she said.

Drivers who refuse to submit to roadside tests will face similar penalties under the new law, much like suspected drunk drivers who refuse to submit to alcohol breathalyzers.

Public safety impact?

In Colorado, where recreational cannabis use for adults has been legal since 2012, it’s hard to say if legalization has led to an increase in impaired driving.

Colorado State Patrol spokesman Trooper Josh Lewis said that before legalization, the state did not distinguish DUI citations on the basis of the intoxicating substance and recorded them all as “driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both.”

“Unfortunately that means we don’t know if there was a huge upswing,” Lewis said. “Something we recommend to other state agencies is that before even thinking of legalization, start getting statistics now, so that you have that data to analyze.”

According to a study done by the Colorado Department of Public Safety in October 2018, however, overall DUI cases in the state were down 15 percent from 2014 to 2017. The percentage of Colorado State Patrol citations with marijuana-only impairment stayed steady at 7 percent and, though the percentage of citations involving cannabis rose from 12 percent in 2012 to 17 percent in 2016, it dropped to 15 percent in 2017.

Cannabis plants grow inside Ascend Illinois indoor facility in Barry, IL. Ascend owns two existing medical dispensaries and plans to open two additional recreational dispensaries early next year.
Credit File Photo | Eric Schmid | St Louis Public Radio
Cannabis plants grow inside Ascend Illinois indoor facility in Barry, IL.

The study also found that the number of fatalities in which the driver tested positive for cannabis in any of its various forms (smoked, eaten, oils, etc.) increased from 55 (or 11 percent of all fatalities) in 2013 to 139 (or 21 percent of all fatalities) in 2017.

Trent Cooper is the commander of police in the town of Littleton, Colorado, a city of similar size to Belleville.

Cooper said that in Littleton, legalization was “a non-issue” in terms of DUIs.

“We haven’t seen a statistical uptick as a result of marijuana legalization,” he said. “People who had a propensity to use marijuana did it anyway. We didn’t see a huge run of it because it was so readily available on the street.”

Even with the caveats that are unreliable testing or a possible increase in DUIs, law enforcement agencies will have to keep doing what they’ve been doing when it comes to enforcement, said St. Clair County Sheriff’s Capt. Bruce Fleshren.

“We have always enforced (laws against) impaired driving and will continue to do that now,” he said. “We hope that people are responsible, but if they’re not, we have to keep enforcing it like we have.

“We’ll push through like we always have.”

Knowing the law, educating the public

One issue that arose in Littleton involved a basic lack of public awareness of the law, Cooper said.

“The only thing that statewide kind of happened was a misperception that because it was legal, people could smoke it anywhere,” he said. “You can’t just light up in your car, in a park, on the street… There was a lack of education.”

The law in Illinois will include the same restrictions, but residents, whether they use cannabis or not, will have to confront new social norms.

Lt. Todd Keilbach of the Belleville Police Department said that some of the more significant challenges to cannabis legalization do not necessarily fall on law enforcement, but on how the community handles it.

“Citizens will have to deal with something that was not overtly used, to see it more frequently sold, possessed and advertised,” he said. “We can foresee an increase in nuisance and quality-of-life type of calls as citizens deal with the smell of cannabis and seeing it occur out in the open.”

The act legalizing cannabis for recreational use in Illinois uses specific language to indicate that only those who are over 21 years old can use the drug.

The law also says that Illinois residents can possess larger amounts than non-residents and, if it is transported in a vehicle, it must be in a sealed container that is “reasonably inaccessible” and keeps the odor contained.

Cannabis in any form is prohibited in “any place where it would be reasonably expected to be seen by others, specifically including all governmental buildings,” said Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons. This includes school buses, school grounds, public parks, motor vehicles, child care facilities or “knowingly” in close proximity to anyone under 21.

If an officer sees someone not following the law’s guidelines, the officer can cite a person for a violation of the Cannabis Control Act.

ISP will continue to perform drug trafficking patrols and investigations, Hundsdorfer said.

When it comes to drug trafficking, some law enforcement agencies expressed concerns that pot sales on the black market will continue despite legalization.

Black market

Even with cannabis legal for recreational use, Monroe County Sheriff Neal Rohlfing said he predicts there will still be people selling it untaxed, with a THC concentration that the new law will allow for a lower price.

“What I do see increasing is the black market,” he said. “There’s a possibility we would have to create a task force to deal with the black market sale of marijuana like (Alabama) had to with moonshine.”

A Forbes magazine report found that in California, legal cannabis was easily accessible where dispensaries were permitted, but in the areas they weren’t, “cannabis deserts” were created, where residents resorted to buying their cannabis illegally from street dealers.

So far, Collinsville is the only metro-east city approved by the state for a dispensary. Other municipalities including Belleville, Fairview Heights and Sauget have cleared the way by allowing sales and establishing new zoning parameters.

Eventually, the metro-east will be allowed to have three more dispensaries, according to state law. In the meantime, the two nearest dispensaries will be in Effingham and Marion, leaving a lot of open cannabis desert space.

Cooper, the Littleton, Colorado, police commander, said he has seen cases in which legally-authorized marijuana growers, who had refined cultivation techniques reserved for medicinal supplies and dispensaries, were harvesting more than they were legally allowed and allowing the surplus to enter the black market.

Illinois’ new law allows for medical marijuana patients to grow up to five plants in their homes, out of public view and out of reach of those under 21. Novacich, the Granite City Police lieutenant, said that this allowance could create new challenges for law enforcement if patients do not abide by the parameters set forth in the law.

“While we do not anticipate significant challenges, it may take some time and extra communication in the beginning to help patients recognize those limitations and the importance of staying within the boundaries of the law,” he said.

Are local agencies ready?

All of the metro-east departments interviewed by the Belleville News-Democrat have been prepared for the change to cannabis law by SILEC, or the Southwestern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission. SILEC is a police training unit that services Bond, Clinton, Madison, Monroe, Randolph, St. Clair and Washington counties by offering courses for police officers on specific public safety issues.

Hayes, SILEC’s director, is a former police officer with 30 years of experience, including tenure as Alton’s chief until 2013. When the new cannabis law was announced, his team compiled an enforcement training course for local agencies.

SILEC’s course focuses on cannabis-impaired driving and equipping local officers to know what to look for during traffic stops.

“That’s the biggest concern because that’s the biggest issue for public safety,” Hayes said.

Hayes’ team also brought in a group of officers from the Denver Police Department and a prosecutor from Colorado to speak with local police about the challenges their state faced when cannabis was legalized. He said bringing those sources in helped the nearly 400 law enforcement personnel who have attended the courses understand the pharmacology of the drug and helped the metro-east officers “get ahead of the curve.”

More training courses have been scheduled for after Jan. 1 as well, Hayes said, and SILEC will present its educational materials at the Southern Illinois Criminal Justice Summit in February, where another 400 chiefs will be in attendance, he said.

“Frankly it’s been one of the most well-attended training topics we’ve had lately, simply because of all the questions everyone has about it moving forward following Jan. 1,” Hayes said.

The national approach

“It’s remarkably confusing for law enforcement today in the era of legalization,” said Max Simon, CEO of Green Flower Media, a cannabis-education business that is developing a standardized cannabis course for law enforcement agencies. “Their marching orders have been to be fundamentally against it and now that’s all different.

“We have to educate and enlighten people to brand new ways of thinking.”

In developing the course, Simon worked with Andrew Salinas, chief of police in Port Hueneme, California. When recreational cannabis was legalized in California, the way his beach town of 22,000 citizens handled the changes from a law enforcement angle has been used as a model for other communities.

'The big answer is that we don't know exactly what to expect. It's going to be a fluid thing. It's such a mystery to us and we're just gathering as much information as we can.' - Collinsville Police Chief Steve Evans

“People were concerned about what dispensaries would bring: higher crime or lower property values, increased traffic, smell or noise,” he said. “It had the opposite effect instead.”

Salinas said in Port Hueneme, violent crime has decreased by 30 percent and property values in the city were the highest they’d been “in some time” because commercial real estate values for dispensaries inflated the market. Local dispensaries even funded 100 new bunk beds in a homeless shelter in the area.

Salinas said this all happened because his department was aggressive in educating the public about changes they’d be seeing around town.

“It’s just getting the information and knowledge about all of our laws out there and training police properly so they have a good understanding how cannabis works themselves,” Salinas said.

Simon said Green Flower plans to make the course available to departments nationwide as other states begin to legalize cannabis.

“These are intensely important issues that are impacting everyone in the state,” he said. “It’s important to get the level of training and education that addresses those real issues in a legitimate and credible way.”

Ongoing change

Beyond the training courses and case studies, there’s little else law enforcement agencies can do to prepare for legalization and there’s no way they can predict every contingency they’ll face.

“The big answer is that we don’t know exactly what to expect,” Collinsville Police Chief Evans said. “It’s going to be a fluid thing. It’s such a mystery to us and we’re just gathering as much information as we can.”

Matevey, from the O’Fallon Police Department, said that it’s too early in the process to truly understand how the legislation will impact the police department, the court system and the community as a whole.

Some departments won’t be changing their approach to policing the law at all.

“This is a hot topic legal change, but every year the legislative branch changes or adds new laws,” said Keilbach, the Belleville Police lieutenant. “Our job is the enforcement of those laws.”

Police have been dealing with cannabis for decades, Granite City Lt. Novacich said, and law enforcement officers recognize its place in the hierarchy of priorities.

“We are well-prepared for the changes in the law and will continue to encourage safe and responsible use and consumption, just like we do with alcohol,” he said.

When asked about what changes they foresee in usage, representatives of each of the departments said they recognized that people who have been using cannabis illegally will likely continue to do so. Small changes that might come in soon after legalization with the new year will probably die down, Monroe County Sheriff Rohlfing said.

And, speaking from experience, officers in California and Colorado communities say the changes really weren’t that dramatic.

“At the local police level, it was literally a non-event for us,” Littleton Police Commander Cooper said. “Everybody’s smoking weed anyway.”

Hana Muslic is a reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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