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Yes, they’ll still bust you for pot

Violators think the cops have quit enforcement, but they haven’t

Note to readers — This is an article on what people should know ahead of the legalization of recreational cannabis taking effect Jan. 1.

If the weekend weather is clear and the parking lot is full, Phil Wire will inevitably catch a whiff of marijuana somewhere on the trails at Starved Rock State Park.

Wire is a sergeant with Illinois Conservation Police, and marijuana at the parks is a problem that has long tested his patience, not least because falls happen even when visitors aren’t impaired.

It’s only gotten worse since marijuana was decriminalized and since the Legislature legalized recreational marijuana starting Jan. 1.

Wire and his staff still issue tickets to those they catch in the act, however. Pot remains completely illegal until the end of the year, and even after Jan. 1, you still can’t light up at the parks — or anywhere in the open, for that matter.

“Not only can’t you smoke it in public, but those under 21 cannot possess it at all,” Wire said. “We still will be enforcing those laws.”

Discreet users could be forgiven for thinking marijuana has become quasi-legal. Pot was decriminalized three years ago statewide, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed recreational marijuana into law this past June.

But full legalization doesn’t begin until Jan. 1, and police are still writing tickets to educate violators on how the still-unfolding law is going to work. Get ticketed for smoking a joint and you’re likely to get a reminder marijuana won’t be 100 percent legal even after Jan. 1: Under the new law, you can’t smoke it out in the open, inside public places such as grocery stores or in your car.

Behind the numbers

A passing glance at the crime statistics would lead to the mistaken belief police have thrown up their hands and quit enforcing cannabis laws. They haven’t. In LaSalle County, for example, misdemeanor pot arrests have fallen sharply — from 19 arrests in 2016 to just five this year — but what once carried jail time is now an ordinance violation carrying only a fine, and those offenses have ballooned by 71 percent over the same three-year span as misdemeanors fell off.

In other words, cops aren’t seizing less marijuana — they’re simply filing the offenses under a different heading at the courthouse.

The same trend is taking place in Bureau and Putnam counties. Bureau County State’s Attorney Geno Caffarini said misdemeanor pot arrests, too, have fallen off a cliff and that pot seizures now result in civil offenses that don’t even cross his desk.

Putnam County Sheriff Kevin Doyle said he’s had zero misdemeanor pot arrests since the fall of 2017, all replaced by ordinance violations that recently cracked double-digits.

“We still enforce,” Doyle said. “We’re not throwing out the law, if that’s what the public is thinking. It is still illegal.”

Not the new alcohol

Getting users to awaken to the limits that will be in place come Jan. 1 has been difficult. Most of those caught violating cannabis laws think pot is no more regulated or restricted than alcohol, and that’s an oversimplification.

“I think there are misconceptions,” Doyle said. “They think they can have this anywhere they want. It’s still not going to be legal to be under the influence at work or behind the wheel.”

Alcohol presents a cautionary tale because a motorist found to have smoked marijuana, even days after the fact, can still be hit with a DUI.

As Peru Police Chief Doug Bernabei explained it, authorities do not yet have a court-accepted testing method for showing impairment at the time of a traffic stop. That means police will continue relying on laboratory analysis to show impairment, and a lab test will come back positive for residual use.

“Often times we won’t know if the person used cannabis minutes ago or days ago,” Bernabei said. “That in itself is a huge obstacle. I am concerned because innocent people most certainly will be caught up in a situation where the confusion and challenges law enforcement face about the new law will cause reasonable, yet ultimately false conclusions.

“I am really concerned about innocent people being charged with a serious driving offense when it may be months and months later before test results come back exonerating them. That is not good.”

Users probably don’t know these things because they’re having less contact with defense lawyers these days. Ottawa defense attorney Joe Navarro would gladly brief his clients on how the law is changing, but those nabbed for low-level cannabis offenses simply aren’t coming in.

“It’s a civil offense now, so they just go into the courthouse and pay it,” Navarro said. “How long has it been since I defended one? It’s got to be a few years.”

Doyle acknowledged even authorities are having difficulty keeping up with the changes as Jan. 1 looms. He was surprised to learn recently one consequence of legalized cannabis reported in Colorado is higher auto insurance. Cannabis has led to so many accidents that a 22-year-old woman will, on average, pay $85 more in auto insurance than a 22-year-old woman in Illinois.

“The general public doesn’t have all the facts on this, or they bury their heads in the sand,” Doyle said.

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