As the city of St. Louis continues to soften punishment for marijuana possession, law enforcement officials and prosecutors in the metro-east say they aren't opposed to more lenient policies, either.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner instructed her staff this week not to pursue any cases involving possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana — enough for roughly 200 joints.
Top prosecutors in Madison and St. Clair counties said there are more pressing matters than pursuing low-level pot cases, though neither said they would go as far as the St. Louis circuit attorney in implementing sweeping policies on how to prosecute — or not prosecute — marijuana possession.
"I think that allowing citizens to have an opportunity to have input on what the law ought to be through their legislatures, through a larger discussion as a society is the appropriate way for these laws to be made," said Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons. "We're going to continue to follow laws as they're written by the Legislature."
Gardner's new policy follows changes to law in both Illinois and Missouri, as well as less severe punishment for marijuana offenses in St. Louis. The city's board of aldermen passed an ordinance in March setting the maximum fine at $25 for possessing small amounts of pot.
In Illinois, anyone caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana can be fined up to $125, according to a bill Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law in July 2016. In Missouri, offenders also face a fine of up to $500, but no jail time.
The new law in Illinois had a significant impact on the number of low-level prosecutions in Madison County, according to Gibbons. The number of cases dropped by half from 2016-17.
"There is definitely no lack of drug-related cases, with the increase in methamphetamines and continued deluge of opioid-related cases," Gibbons said. "We have other higher priorities in terms of drugs that have sapped our resources."
St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said he supported the change in Illinois' law in 2016, when he was president of the Illinois State's Attorneys Association at the time.
Kelly said police and prosecutors "use their discretion and best judgment every day to triage and focus on the most dangerous offenders," rather than low-level possession cases.
"Officers are issuing fewer and fewer cannabis citations," Kelly said. "Those that do make it into the courts are often eligible for diversion programs that don't result in a permanent criminal record."
He added, "And as medical marijuana expands, fewer cannabis cases will be charged."
St. Clair County Sheriff Richard Watson, who is in his 40th year of law enforcement, said the times have changed from when it would have been political heresy to support legalizing pot.
"We were all dead set against it," Watson said. "But now we're seeing the big picture ... I'm seeing things happening in our society today, especially the opioid crisis, where we've got people dying. Now you only have so many resources. So, should we direct our resources at opioids and LSD and other things that can actually kill people? And not worry so much about the marijuana?"
Increasingly lax statewide laws combined with legitimate medical uses put marijuana offenses on the lower end of the Sheriff's Department's priorities, Watson said.
Arrests for cannabis possession have decreased in both Madison and St. Clair counties in recent years, according to FBI data.
In 2016, police in St. Clair County made 759 arrests, a 17 percent decrease from 2015. In Madison County, police made 510 arrests, a 13 percent decrease from the previous year. St. Clair County's population in 2016 was 261,527, while Madison County's population was 265,114.
Watson said he believes legalizing recreational marijuana could bring valuable revenue to the state.
"I can see where it makes sense to legalize it, tax it, put the tax money back to law enforcement and education for kids," Watson said.
Doing so could eliminate the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, the sheriff added.
"The buyers and the sellers and the fights over the corner to sell it on, they do create those other issues with shootings and violence," Watson said.
At a roundtable discussion in May in Carbondale, Kelly said he supported removing marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs, according to The Southern Illinoisan. Schedule 1 drugs are substances the federal government says have no accepted medical use and "a high potential for abuse," according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.