State senators, state's attorney debate pros, cons of recreational marijuana bill

  • State Sen. Don DeWitte, left, hosted a community forum at St. Charles North High School to debate the value of legalizing recreational marijuana. Joining him were state Sen. Heather Steans and McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally.

    State Sen. Don DeWitte, left, hosted a community forum at St. Charles North High School to debate the value of legalizing recreational marijuana. Joining him were state Sen. Heather Steans and McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally. Courtesy of State Sen. Don DeWitte

  • State Sen. Don DeWitte said there is nothing he likes about the pending version of a state Senate bill that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in Illinois.

    State Sen. Don DeWitte said there is nothing he likes about the pending version of a state Senate bill that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in Illinois. Courtesy of State Sen. Don DeWitte

  • State Sen. Don DeWitte's public forum on legalizing recreational marijuana in St. Charles drew officials and law enforcement representatives from throughout the area. St. Charles Mayor Ray Rogina and Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke both attended.

      State Sen. Don DeWitte's public forum on legalizing recreational marijuana in St. Charles drew officials and law enforcement representatives from throughout the area. St. Charles Mayor Ray Rogina and Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke both attended. James Fuller | Staff Photographer

  • McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally said he smoked marijuana as a high school student but he's since become convinced cannabis is a "modern snake oil" with many false health claims.

      McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally said he smoked marijuana as a high school student but he's since become convinced cannabis is a "modern snake oil" with many false health claims. James Fuller | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/14/2019 5:36 PM

Depending on your point of view, legalizing recreational marijuana in Illinois may help limit teen drug use or it may create a new batch of problems for local police.

Illinois state lawmakers will debate that issue this week with a timeline of passing legislation before the end of May. With one of his biggest votes to date on the horizon, state Sen. Don DeWitte hosted a community forum on the draft bill in St. Charles this week.

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The session featured proponent Heather Steans, a state senator from the Rogers Park/Edgewater area of Chicago, and McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally, who opposes the legislation.

Steans said much of the talk in favor of the legislation points to an estimated $500 million of new revenue and the expected creation of 25,000 jobs. But her main focus is addressing what she sees as a failed public health policy.

"Prohibition just does not work," Steans said. "We have about 800,000 people who self-report regular use. And when you purchase it on the street, you just don't know what you're getting. So it's widespread, and it's not safe."

That's particularly troublesome when it comes to the four out of five teens who say it's "easy" to access marijuana, Steans said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Teens should not be accessing cannabis," she said. "We need to do a much better job of educating teens about why cannabis is bad for brain development and keep them from using."

Early results in states with legal recreational use show no increase in marijuana use, she said.

The public education component is not the most problematic aspect for the law enforcement community.

Under Steans' bill, residents 21 and older could buy up to 30 grams (nonresidents can buy up to 15 grams). Public consumption would still be illegal as would driving under the influence of cannabis.

Kenneally pointed to at least two major enforcement problems.

Marijuana doesn't stay in the blood long. No current field sobriety tests can determine marijuana use levels. Kenneally said that would make it impossible to hold people driving under the influence of marijuana accountable even if they killed people because of impairment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He said he believes legalizing recreation use will increase the number of impaired drivers.

The pending bill also would allow people to grow up to five marijuana plants for personal use. Steans is considering an amendment that would limit that to people who qualify for medical use. But any allowance for home grow operations will be an invitation to game the system, Kenneally said.

"You don't think that creates a natural black market when they are growing plants in their own home? If someone is coordinating with other grow operations, it would be very easy to switch plants in and out," Kenneally said. "Law enforcement can't be expected to be keeping tabs on what part of the growth cycle the plant is in. What you're allowing the cartels to do is to hide in plain sight."

In an interview, DeWitte said there is nothing he likes in the current version of the bill. He is concerned about a lack of commitment to use the expected revenue to pay down the state's outstanding debts. He also shares Kenneally's law enforcement concerns.

"If we are going to make it legal, we need to regulate it," DeWitte said. "We can't open up people's basements to continue to promote black markets that may already exist in people's neighborhoods."

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