Prosecutors, police prepare for potential medicinal marijuana repercussions

Sooner than later, 60 medicinal marijuana dispensaries will open throughout the state, catering to those with legal prescriptions for the drug.

Several of those dispensaries will open in the Fox Valley, which begs the question: How will law enforcement handle potential repercussions of the new law?

“Many times we pass a bill and don’t understand the unintended consequences,” said Limey Nargelenas, governmental relations manager for the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs.

Surveying crime statistics in states with similar laws, he added, might give some indication as to what could happen on our own streets. Those statistics may be a cause for concern, said Kendall County Assistant State’s Attorney Nemura Pencyla.

“My understanding is there has been a marked increase (in crime) associated with the legal consumption of marijuana,” Pencyla said. “I think the jury is still out on what, if any, of these things will happen upon the introduction of these dispensaries in Illinois.”

Legal consumption and DUI

Dialogue about the new law has been happening internally among law enforcement leaders for months, but experts say there are kinks to work out.

“We’re prepared. We’re ready,” said Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon. “But it’s going to be a big change, especially in the area of DUI law.”

Kendall County Sheriff Richard Randall agreed. There is currently no provision about medicinal marijuana written into the DUI law, he noted, which leaves police wading through muddy waters in terms of making an arrest.

Without a prescription for the drug, anyone found with marijuana in their system at the time of a fatal or personal injury accident can be charged with driving under the influence. The driver’s impairment at the time of the crash isn’t called into question.

That will change for card holders, prosecutors said. When it comes to alcohol impairment, there is a legal threshold of .08 as far as alcohol level in the blood. There’s no law that says how much marijuana can be in a legal user’s system while behind the wheel.

“We now have to determine impairment,” McMahon said.

There are ways to do that, he said. Statements collected on the scene, observations by officers and some field sobriety tests will help officers determine a driver’s legal ability to operate a vehicle. However, “there has been no guidance from the General Assembly on that,” he said. “There’s no case law to follow. This is a new law.”

Naperville Police Sgt. Bill Davis said police will use the same standard for medicinal marijuana that applies to those found driving while under the influence of any prescription medication.

“A (medicinal marijuana) license does not trump the requirement that they need to safely operate a vehicle… they will be subject to the same rigorous testing if impairment is in question,” Pencyla said. “It will be difficult. But it’s a task that we are faced with in every criminal case.”

Joe Ruggiero, chief of the criminal division of the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office, conceded the new laws legalizing medicinal use of marijuana will likely “complicate” the issue.

“In the past, all you had to do was (be in possession) of marijuana, and there were no exceptions” as to its being illegal, Ruggiero said. “And now there are, obviously, exceptions to that.”

Other cause for concern

Besides DUI and possession charge complications, there are other factors surrounding the introduction of medicinal marijuana that need to be addressed from a criminal court and law enforcement standpoint.

Where forged or phony marijuana prescriptions are concerned, police will respond to those issues in the same way they do when they are contacted by pharmacies that suspect fraudulent prescriptions for medication, Davis said.

McMahon raised additional concerns: How will the law impact those on probation, who are prohibited from using narcotics? How will those involved in the county’s drug diversion programs be dealt with if they test positive for marijuana but are allowed to use it medicinally?

Nargelenas also suggested a rise in potential robberies and burglaries near where dispensaries set up shop.

“It’s a cash business,” he said. “You can rob somebody of cash on their way in. If you miss them, you can rob them of drugs on the way out.”

Because of these concerns, officers from around the Fox Valley have been trained on how to deal with potential problems.

“I think law enforcement does have valid concerns about how this is going to affect their work,” McMahon said. “They have to deal with the issues on the front line.”

Naperville police said they are prepared for this undertaking.

A medical marijuana dispensary could open next spring in Naperville, in a nondescript storefront at 1701 Quincy Ave. on the city’s west side. The newly-incorporated 3C Compassionate Care Centers partnership is waiting for the state to issue license applications for the 60 marijuana dispensaries — three of them in DuPage County — that will be permitted to operate under Illinois’ Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act.

Davis said police are aware of the planned dispensary, and are ready to address concerns as they arise.

“Medicinal marijuana. I think that’s a misnomer. It’s not medicine,” Nargelenas said. “But it’s here in Illinois for the next four years, and we’ll have to see what happens, and what problems occur.”

After four years, the law will be re-examined, and could become a permanent reality for Illinois residents.

McMahon has his own thoughts on what might happen.

“It’s too early to know today what the General Assembly is thinking, or how they will analyze (crime) data,” he said. “But I think the national trend is that this is not going to be a temporary thing.”

So officers will continue training, he said. Prosecutors will continue learning how to try these cases, and everyone will work together to get past the “learning curve.”

“I wouldn’t call it a burden,” McMahon said. “We deal with changes in the law all of the time … but, this is going to be a process. And, it’s one we’re prepared for.”

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