Legal pot is coming, but until then, 'We're not going to let it go,' suburban cops say

Recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Illinois Jan. 1, but until then, don't expect to catch a break from suburban police if you get busted jumping the gun.

We polled a handful of suburban law enforcement leaders this week on how they're handling marijuana cases with legalization less than six months away. All said they'll enforce the laws on the books until Jan. 1.

"It's still the law of the land and we're not going to turn a blind eye to it," Des Plaines Chief Bill Kushner told us. "I think that would be the worst thing we could do."

Kushner said his officers have been issuing citations over the past four or five years for those possessing small amounts of marijuana, and there's been no discussion about changing that. Possessing larger amounts or dealing pot, he said, will lead to cases being referred to the Cook County state's attorney for criminal prosecution.

Arlington Heights Acting Chief Nicholas Pecora said his department will be following similar guidelines.

"We're not going to let it go," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's still a violation of the law."

Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain said his deputies will exercise discretion as to whether to charge someone on a small possession charge. They won't ignore it entirely.

"As law enforcement we have to live within the four corners of the law," he said.

Schaumburg Chief Bill Wolf said the department will place a higher priority on addressing the opioid epidemic, but "we have no plans to change our policies at this point."

Wolf noted that while recreational use of marijuana becomes legal on New Year's Day, possessing large amounts or selling marijuana will remain a crime, and even a felony in some cases.

As for those who might question why law enforcement would bother catching violators when possessing marijuana soon will be legal, Hain notes offenders have been saying that for a long time.

The main way people are caught? In their cars, when pulled over for traffic violations.

"We understand people are going to do it. We'd say, 'Leave your stuff at home,'" Hain said.

<h3 class="leadin">Bracing for change

In the meantime, police across the state are preparing for a host of new challenges surrounding legalization, perhaps none more important than determining whether someone is driving under the influence of pot.

Reports released last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute showed that the number of crashes rose as much as 6% in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, compared with states nearby that didn't legalize recreational use.

The challenge for police isn't just the potential for more intoxicated drivers and related crashes, but testing for whether someone is high.

"We're going to be aggressive with DUI enforcement because it's just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, as alcohol impairment," Wolf said.

But unlike with alcohol, there's no widely accepted test to tell if a driver is under the influence of marijuana or how intoxicated that person might be. And while alcohol passes through the body relatively quickly, traces of marijuana use can remain for days or even weeks after its effects have worn off.

Illinois State Police are taking charge in the search for solutions. The agency announced last week that it will lead the state's DUI Cannabis Task Force, which aims to improve enforcement and education regarding driving under the influence of marijuana.

The work includes researching ways to test saliva for marijuana impairment and investigating technology that has shown promise in other states.

The ISP Forensic Laboratory System has acquired tools needed to quantify the level of THC - marijuana's active ingredient - in blood and hopes to expand their use from the Springfield Forensic Science Laboratory to the agency's Forensic Science Center in Chicago.

State police also are working to train more officers in Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement.

"As the laws of the state of Illinois change, the ISP will ensure our officers, forensic scientists, telecommunicators and support staff have the necessary training and tools needed to continue to enforce the laws in place and perform their respective duties," state police Acting Director Brendan F. Kelly said.

<h3 class="leadin">Drunk+drugs equals a defense?

Can unknowingly taking a dangerous mix of alcohol and prescription drugs make you a killer?

That's what a DuPage County judge has been ordered to explore via an appellate court decision in the case of a Wheaton man convicted of murdering his neighbor in 2009.

Michael Delaney claims he was involuntarily intoxicated when he fatally stabbed his neighbor in Wheaton in 2009.

Michael Delaney is serving a 55-year prison sentence for fatally stabbing Micheal Scalzo during a confrontation outside their neighboring apartment buildings. The killing happened after Scalzo, 40, offered shelter to Delaney's ex-girlfriend when they broke up.

Last week, a state appeals court sent the case back to DuPage County court, ordering a judge to examine Delaney's claims he was "involuntarily intoxicated" at the time of the killing. State law says Delaney could be exonerated if involuntary intoxication deprived him of the ability to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or conform his conduct to the law.

According to a petition filed by Delaney in 2016, his dosage of three psychotropic drugs - Zoloft, Trazadone and Seroquel - was raised two weeks before the killing, but he was never warned about the dangers of taking the medication while drinking alcohol. A pharmacologist cited in the petition said the combination "caused an involuntary intoxication rendering (Delaney) impaired, and unable to form a deliberate, planned attack on (Scalzo)."

The appellate justices said they have no opinion on whether Delaney's claim has merit, only that it deserves a look.

"The claim is not based on an indisputably meritless legal theory or fanciful factual allegations," Justice Michael J. Burke wrote in the unanimous ruling.

A hearing date in DuPage County has not been scheduled.

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