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."
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."