CHAMPAIGN — Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said that, in her office, the prosecution of cannabis possession and delivery is not a major issue.
"We are more focused when it comes to drug prosecution when it comes to cocaine and heroin, two drugs that are prevalent in our community and cause serious damage to users and families," said Rietz.
Of the 198 people in the county jail, Rietz said that only five of them are there on cannabis charges, and all five of them face additional charges, such as gun possession or aggravated domestic battery.
However, Rietz is concerned about cannabis used by juveniles.
In Champaign County, the percentage of positive tests for cannabis among juveniles on probation increased from 43.94 percent in 2015 to 62.63 percent in 2018.
"We can say it's not a gateway drug, but it absolutely affects their brain cells, it absolutely affects their decision-making and absolutely affects the direction they go in life," she said.
Rietz was one of eight panel members taking part in a community forum on marijuana Monday night at Illinois Terminal.
"The increase in juvenile consumption is happening while it is illegal," said County Clerk Aaron Ammons, who served as moderator. "The education you see about tobacco is what will be necessary."
The audience heard from panelists talking about the recreational marijuana industry, the medical cannabis industry, the licensing of growers and distributors and how public health could be involved with legalized marijuana.
"We've got to allow people to grow their own," said Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde. "We now see families completely destroyed for marijuana convictions, and nothing good comes from that."
Legislators talked about marijuana-related bills in Illinois.
"This is one of the most pressing things that will happen in my legislative career," said State Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, who has studied the regulation and taxation of marijuana since 2004.
She talked about how legalizing recreational cannabis could become an economic engine.
"It would help to grow microbusinesses in the community," she said. "It is important that we pass a bill that produces equity businesses."
She also wants to reinvest any money that comes from taxing marijuana.
"It is important to use the revenue to improve the communities," she said.
Panelist State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, is the sponsor of a bill that would allow those age 21 and older to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis.
"It would allow households to grow up to five plants, but we are considering whether that should only be for medical patients at home. Law enforcement has concerns about how you enforce the home grow," Steans said.
Steans said her bill would continue to make driving under the influence of cannabis illegal, public consumption of marijuana would be illegal and employers and landlords could have zero-tolerance policies.
State Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, said he is looking for a bill that legalizes marijuana for adults in recreational settings.
"But we have to recognize that education is important. We have to educate the public about when it is safe and when it is not safe," he said.
Members of the public questioned whether marijuana was a gateway drug, why cultivation centers and dispensaries could not be combined, uses for profits from marijuana taxes, whether employers should be allowed to have zero tolerance and liability for drivers found with marijuana in their system.
"An experienced user probably can operate a vehicle safely," said panelist Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman said he wasn't as much of a cheerleader for marijuana laws as some of the other panelists had been.
"I haven't formed an opinion yet," he said. "As the elected law enforcement official for the county, I'm not sure my personal opinion really matters."
Heuerman said his role is to ensure public safety.
"Let's face it: This is probably going to happen," he said. "We have to be conscious of what happens when somebody is driving down the road, and they're high, and they wreck, and they kill somebody."