Local law enforcement wary of recreational marijuana

Sheriff Dave Mahon with an Effingham County squad car. Mahon said he's concerned about how legalizing recreational cannabis will affect safety in the county. Kaitlin Cordes photo

Effingham County Sheriff Dave Mahon and Effingham Police Chief Jason McFarland voiced concerns over a recently proposed Illinois bill calling for the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Mahon said Senate Bill 7, proposed by Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, is moving along the legislative path without time for legislators to truly look into the negative consequences it could have, especially for law enforcement.

"I know the legislators are looking into this pretty hard, and it's kind of on the fast track, which really scares me," Mahon said. "I think that we kind of need to step back and look at what's happened in other states before we just jump right in. Illinois has already decriminalized marijuana, and this proposal is meant to commercialize the industry and product with proven health and safety concerns."

Mahon said Effingham County has in recent years reduced its number of driving under the influence cases, but drug use has become the main issue. He is concerned that legalized recreational marijuana could lead to drivers operating a vehicle while impaired by cannabis. Mahon cited a 2018 study published in the Journal of Transport and Health which showed that in states where marijuana is decriminalized, cannabis-related fatal crashes rose by 174 percent.

Mahon and McFarland said they see an issue with what's know as the "home grow loophole," as recently highlighted in a press release from the Illinois Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Associations. The release states law enforcement activities more difficult by "undermining the system of legal, commercial cannabis."

"I am concerned with the home grow section," McFarland said. "I've talked to officers in other states like Colorado where this has been legalized, and they said some of the issues they've had are the consequences where people will rent a house and literally turn it into a grow operation, and they will ruin that house."

Mahon agreed.

"One of the things that they're looking at doing is this "home grow" loophole, and some studies have shown that in a number of states that have this, it brings these grow operations where people can actually grow marijuana and then turn around and sell it in residential neighborhoods," Mahon said. "The home is hard for law enforcement to reach out and control. The way the laws are written, if you're out in a vehicle on the open roadway, you're more accessible to law enforcement as opposed to being in your own house. I think they really need to take a hard look at the home grow operations that they're going to put into legislation."

McFarland and Mahon said legalizing cannabis will bring on a host of unintended issues, such as essentially eliminating the use of K-9s trained to detect marijuana. Mahon said legalization might impede law enforcement's ability to search a car should a drug dog hit on it as the dog can't tell how much is inside.

McFarland said he has spoken to K-9 handlers on the city police department who have said a dog cannot be untrained in sniffing out cannabis. While apprehension and tracking are important parts of the K-9s duties, McFarland said narcotics detection is "90 percent of their day-to-day work."

Another part of the proposed law concerns Mahon. He said expunging charges related to cannabis from criminal records would be too big of an undertaking for local law enforcement agencies, especially on the county level.

"Another problem I see is the consequences of mass expungement. It's been against the law for many years to possess marijuana, and now we're going to go in and we have to wipe all of our records clean. Our No. 1 priority is to provide safety for the citizens on an everyday basis. Now, we're spending our time going back in and wiping away those records," Mahon said.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, but it is a lot of work to go in and find all these records and take them out of our system. It was against the law at the time, and these people chose to break the law. They got arrested. In my opinion, I don't think that we should have to go in and do that. It's just taking away from the already stretched resources that we have in the county to go in and do that. I think that's a big deal."

McFarland said the proposed bill could also put a financial burden on local law enforcement agencies with the mass expungements, and enforcing the law could mean new training or other requirements for officers. One thing lawmakers aren't looking at, McFarland said, is the law will not eliminate the non-commercialized sale of cannabis.

"I know other issues they've had in other states is, once they make this recreational, it doesn't eliminate the black market. If it costs you, let's say, $100 to buy an ounce of recreational cannabis at a local facility, if you can buy that for a fraction of the price, they're going to do it, and people are going to sell it for the money. Again, that's points I hope the new law takes into account, that you're still going to have a black market and still have this smuggled in," McFarland said.

As for the revenue the bill touts for the state, Mahon said law enforcement will only see a fraction of the state's money made on the sale of cannabis. He said the money would come in the form of a grant utilizing 8 percent of the state's revenue from recreational marijuana, an amount Mahon said won't make a big impact.

"It's a grant, so I think they're going to throw a little bit of money at law enforcement in hopes that we can use that to help fight the problems that's going to happen through the legalization," Mahon said. "I think if they're looking at profits, the money that's going to be gained from the sale of marijuana is not even going to come close to paying for any of the new problems that we're going to inherit with it."

Kaitlin Cordes can be reached at kaitlin.cordes@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 132.