Metro-East News

Metro-east officials share mixed thoughts on marijuana bill

Gov. Bruce Rauner said he may be comfortable with legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Illinois, but the Republican stopped short of promising to sign the bill, according to The Associated Press.

The Illinois House gave the measure final approval Wednesday, and it already has passed the Illinois Senate. The bill includes recommendations Rauner issued when he vetoed a decriminalization measure last year.

Rauner said Thursday he has to review the bill, but that if it includes what he recommended he’ll “probably be comfortable with it.”

The bill, if signed into law, would impose fines up to $200 for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana but no jail time.

It also sets a standard for what’s considered too high to drive — something that Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons views as a positive aspect of the bill.

“It would help us move forward in terms of testing for DUI, for THC intoxication as opposed to just mere presence, which we know lasts for long periods of time,” Gibbons said.

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said Thursday that the State’s Attorney’s Association supports provisions that provide specific THC concentration limitations for any person operating a vehicle, snowmobile or watercraft in the state.

“This is important to be able to have a bright line of enforcement for driving under the influence of cannabis,” Kelly said in an email to a Belleville News-Democrat reporter. “As to the overall thrust of this legislation, I believe law enforcement must triage and make difficult but smart choices about what our priorities are as we protect public safety. We have too many people suffering from heroin and opioid addiction and too many profiting from that epidemic. That should be our focus right now.”

Gibbons added that the decriminalization aspect of the bill could potentially save law enforcement agencies time “to focus on serious criminals” rather than “low-level users.” However, he also described the bill as “a mixed bag.”

“One area where I still have a concern is the fact that the illegal trade of marijuana seems to be getting more violent,” Gibbons said, noting that the bill could create a greater access or demand for marijuana. “It’s the dealers and the people who are moving larger quantities who seem to be getting more violent.”

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson shared a similar concern, questioning if a person would be able to grow marijuana, or if it would potentially encourage a person to seek out a dealer. Watson said the measure creates more questions than answers.

“There are so many issues that surrounds that. If we decriminalize it and make it legal, can you carry it in a car? You can’t carry alcohol in a car,” Watson said. “It’s easy to say we’re going to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but it’s not that simple. There needs to be some discussion about it, there needs to be some research about it before the think about doing it.”

Jay Cook, director of education and community outreach at HCI Alternatives, said the bill could be seen as a step forward for people seeking to use marijuana for medical purposes not recognized by the state under the current law. The company has a dispensary located in Collinsville.

“On the medical side, we make sure our patients know not to possess it in areas that they’re not supposed to be and use it responsibly at home. For the state of Illinois, it does protect the occasional user who might be using it to help with some pain that is not one of the conditions recognized by the state of Illinois,” Cook said. “I have seen the results and I know there are many more conditions that patients could use medical cannabis to help get some relief for their symptoms, and I think the process to get a medical marijuana card is doing better in the state. I hope this pilot program will continue past 2017.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kaitlyn Schwers: 618-239-2526, @kaitlynschwers