Pot's arrival has police leery

Pot's arrival has police leery

With less than three weeks left until the state begins accepting applications from patients, area law enforcement officials are preparing to enforce Illinois' new law allowing the use, production and distribution of medical marijuana.

But they're also bracing for potential problems.

"We have a problem with multiple illegal drugs and people getting addicted and how that affects society," said Piatt County Sheriff David Hunt. "I and other sheriffs understand there's a good part to medical marijuana to some people. But how do you control who gets access to it after it's prescribed? We have kids selling their Ritalin at school, giving it to other kids.

"Our issue is: How do we control all that? I don't think there's a good answer."

Hunt was one of several police officials who this week shared with The News-Gazette their fears — among them a potential increase in violent crime, patients with prescriptions driving while impaired and kids getting the wrong message about drug use.

The new law has left many of them both sympathetic and scared.

"When people are suffering from cancer and other medical issues that impact their lives so horribly that it also impacts their families' lives ... and they want to address that pain, that is 100 percent understandable," Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly said. But, he added, "I'm very concerned that some of the medical marijuana approaches are just an excuse for some people to make a lot of money."

Illinois' law is one of the most restrictive in the country. Only patients with one of 41 debilitating diseases and conditions — which range from cancer to lupus — will be eligible to participate in the program.

However, don't think that folks won't try to get the list expanded, authorities say. The Illinois Department of Public Health is developing a process that allows patients with other conditions to petition their ailment be added to the list.

"I think a lot of people are hiding under the umbrella of medical marijuana for issues like insomnia or soft tissue damage, like carpal tunnel syndrome," Connolly said. "And in my opinion, that could be very detrimental."

Mixed messages

Connolly and others say the legalization of marijuana — even in its strictest form — just widens the drug culture in areas that have long faced severe problems with illegal substances, such as cocaine and heroin, and legal ones, such as alcohol and prescription medication. This, they say, opens the door for even more abuse and other problems.

Both Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason and Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh can't help but wonder what type of impact the state's four-year pilot program will have on violence and other crime.

This year, Danville has had multiple shootings, three of them fatal. Thomason declined to say whether they were drug-related because the cases are pending "but we can attribute ... not all, but much, of the violence we've seen in this community to drug activity," he said.

Thomason, who's been in law enforcement as a sworn officer or administrator for 44 years, is no longer surprised when he hears that drugs were somehow involved in a homicide, domestic violence incident, armed robbery, break-in, theft, prostitution case, even a forged check.

"They steal from family, they steal from friends, they may take it from strangers to obtain money or items they can sell to purchase drugs," he said, adding that dealers don't hesitate to use violent means to protect their product or cash.

Walsh fears that medical marijuana dispensaries could become targets for thieves — "like any valuable item — jewelry stores, banks, gun dealers," he said.

"First, you've got the finished product," Thomason added. "Second, you've got the cash."

Vermilion County Sheriff Pat Hartshorn isn't convinced that the new law will automatically lead to more crime. His biggest concern with medical marijuana in local storefronts is in the message.

"It's a message completely the opposite of what we are saying to young people through the DARE Program and other anti-drug messages," he said.

That message is: If a doctor says you can have the stuff, then how can it be harmful?

Pot still popular

Cocaine has long been a problem in Vermilion County, Hartshorn says. More recently, he's seen more methamphetamine cases. And heroin is making a comeback.

But marijuana has stayed consistent across time.


Hartshorn believes it's because there have always been people who believe it's not as dangerous or addictive as other drugs.

Connolly couldn't agree more. Kids "think it's a socially accepted drug," he said. "They don't realize the impact it has. The reality is that today, (marijuana) is far more potent that it has been in years past. While they may not become physically dependent, they do become psychologically dependent on it to function each day."

State laws also seem to treat marijuana differently, authorities said.

Any amount of cocaine, meth or heroin is a felony, while possession of marijuana under a certain amount is only a misdemeanor. In some cities, people who are caught with it are issued a citation and fined.

Illinois State Police Master Sgt. Lisa Mitchell said her task force will fully enforce the rules of medical marijuana, which limit patients to 2.5 ounces over a 14-day period. If anyone is breaking any part of the law, they will make arrests, she said.

"We are not sure what to expect from it yet," Mitchell said. "I assume they will have their cards when they are stopped, and we will investigate each situation as it occurs and make sure they are following the rules."

Her Vermilion Metropolitan Enforcement Group team made 30 marijuana-related arrests in the last 12 months alone, seizing 84.4 pounds of cannabis and 77 plants. In one of those arrests, in July in the small town of Bismarck, they busted a suspected drug dealer and seized 15 pounds of cannabis and $33,800 in cash.

On the University of Illinois campus, it's the No. 1 drug police encounter. From July 1, 2013 to June 30, the department's Targeted Response Unit made 21 marijuana-related arrests and took about 41 pounds of cannabis off the street, according to Detective Sgt. Joe McCullough.

And those figures don't include other pot-related arrests or seizures made by the rest of the UI's police department.

"It's always been a drug of experimentation and recreation," he said, "and that's not going to change."


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GeneralLeePeeved wrote on August 15, 2014 at 7:08 am

Wow!  while the rest of the civilized world contemplates the complete legalization of weed......central Illinois appears to be stuck in the vestiges of "Reefer Madness".

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on August 17, 2014 at 1:08 am
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It's disturbing. There's no other way to put it.


It makes me uncomfortable that these people wield power. And it makes me uncomfortable that the News-Gazette's elderly subscription base is now living in fear of wilding pot smokers.


I'm reminded of Sam Waterston's Robot Insuarance sketch on SNL, except that I can't be amused by this piece, or its participants.



football jingoists wrote on August 15, 2014 at 8:08 am

I don't see anyone up in arms about the alcohol industry encouraging people to consume a personally and socially dangerous substance for profit. And yet, the way this article makes it sound, there are going to be roaming bands of looters wielding machine guns if we ever legalize marijuana. Give me a break. Maybe people believe it isn't as dangerous as other drugs because it isn't as dangerous as other drugs. Your life is more likely to be ruined by our ridiculous laws than it is by the substance these laws are supposed to protect us from.

Chambanacitizen wrote on August 15, 2014 at 9:08 am

Most of the people that are still quoting "Reefer Madness", the gateway theory, today's pot is stronger, and all the other propaganda are part of the older crowd anyway. They will start retiring/dying off soon.  The laws will come into line. Younger people have time on our side. But, just in case they are right about ultra-violent potheads...I've started locking my deadbolt. Hope they don't check the patio door though...I can't get off the couch to lock it, as the marijuanna pic in this story is some of today's super strong pot, and just looking at it got me stoned. 

GeneralLeePeeved wrote on August 15, 2014 at 9:08 am

....no worries, they would only want your Cheetos

EdRyan wrote on August 15, 2014 at 12:08 pm

But notice how government in the smaller counties in the area are lining up to grab those tax dollars!  

towniepride wrote on August 15, 2014 at 1:08 pm

This article is absolutely absurd. My guess is that each person interviewed for this article drinks there fair share of alcohol on a weekly basis. I hate the stereotype people get when they smoke weed. I for one smoke weed on a daily basis for a way to unwind and help me with my stomach issues. People I work with and interact with for work have no idea that I smoke every day. At no point has weed made me lazy or want to rob and steal from people. My weed smoking has never got in the way of my career. Most of you reading this article would be surprised to know what I do for a career and would never think someone who smokes weed would be where my career is at today at my age (28). I'm just fed up with the stereotypes and the lack of knowledge people who write articles like this have when it comes to marijuana and especially medical marijuana. 

oldstoner wrote on August 16, 2014 at 9:08 am

well written and my story exactly!   but been smoking daily for 30+ years

alabaster jones 71 wrote on August 15, 2014 at 11:08 pm
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Just a bunch of old, outdated stereotypes masquerading as legitimate concerns.  Not surprising at all, but still very disappointing.

"Hartshorn believes it's because there have always been people who believe (that marijuana is) not as dangerous or addictive as other drugs."

Probably because it isn't, based upon every shred of evidence available.

Hartshorn, along with everyone else promoting this reefer madness BS, should be fired for trying to spread this kind of fear and misinformation amongst his constituents. Replace him with someone whose mindset is based in 2014, not 1954.

"Walsh fears that medical marijuana dispensaries could become targets for thieves — "like any valuable item — jewelry stores, banks, gun dealers," he said."

So, by that logic, we should ban jewelry stores, banks, and gun dealers.  If any business is a potential target for crime, we should apparently just shut it down to make law enforcement's lives easier.

"I think a lot of people are hiding under the umbrella of medical marijuana for issues like insomnia or soft tissue damage, like carpal tunnel syndrome," Connolly said. "And in my opinion, that could be very detrimental."

Yes, because sleeping medication is obviously way less toxic and potentially harmful than marijuana.  That's why so many people who try to commit suicide smoke a bunch of pot, instead of taking a bunch of sleeping pills.

Connolly is either a stone cold moron, or a bald faced liar.  Which one is it?

jonjones773 wrote on August 16, 2014 at 11:08 am

Let's be honest here. The real problem will be how the police and various courthouses will make up the revenue of all the drug cases resulting from marijuana. There are hundreds of thousands of inmates in our prison and probationary systems over shockingly small amounts of marijuana. Will it get used as a crutch by some? Probably. But isn't that the same in any case with anything from ciggerettes to coffee? Is this usuage turning into a crutch a guarantee for a later life of crime, if not then why is it law enforcments latest focus when Chicago sees more shootings in a so-called gun-free zone? It seems we have bigger fish to fry here.