McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally has asked state representatives to vote against legalizing marijuana in Illinois, if and when the time comes.
Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker has been outspoken about his plans to legalize marijuana for recreational use in an attempt to curb opioid overdoses, generate tax revenue and stop disproportionate prosecution against people of color.
Kenneally fears legalizing the drug for recreational use would lead to more violent crime in McHenry County and complicate the prosecution of driving under the influences cases that have resulted in injuries, he said.
The state’s attorney expressed his concerns in a five-page letter Nov. 28 addressed to state Sens. Donald DeWitte, Dan McConchie and Craig Wilcox, along with state Reps. David McSweeney, Steve Reick, Allen Skillicorn, Dan Ugaste and Tom Weber.
“It is disheartening to see legislators willing to unleash recreational cannabis with all the driving force of capitalism before the health and social consequences are fully understood,” Kenneally wrote. “It is far better to wait for the ongoing experiments in Colorado, Washington, Michigan and Canada to reach fully mature and conclusive results over the next several years.”
The state’s attorney said he’s not opposed to decriminalizing the possession of larger amounts of marijuana, but he claims legalizing it entirely would open the door for cartels and black market dealers to move in and take advantage of Illinois’ “exorbitant” taxes.
Skillicorn, R-Crystal Lake, is a sponsor on a bill seeking to legalize marijuana in Illinois. As it’s written now, the bill would not allow for additional taxes to be tacked onto marijuana sales. The cautionary measure should be enough to stave off potential black market dealers, Skillicorn said.
“The market still works,” Skillicorn said. “If people can buy it on the street cheaper than they can buy it at the store, then that changes things.”
A November study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois found that the state stands to gain $525.3 million in new tax revenue from marijuana sales. Included in those revenues is $505.1 million that likely would go to state government and $20.2 million to local government, according to the study.
The estimate of revenue used a
26.25 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana in addition to the 6.25 percent general sales tax.
Kenneally said the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office isn’t draining its resources on prosecuting people accused of having small amounts of marijuana.
“Despite claims to the contrary, no one, not ever, is being sentenced to prison for possessing small or moderate amounts of marijuana in Illinois,” Kenneally said.
In 2017, only two people in McHenry County were sent to prison for a marijuana-related offense. Both defendants were involved in high-volume trafficking operations, Kenneally said.
Legalizing marijuana does, however, have the potential to lead to more violent crime, he said. The free market could attract drug cartels looking to use Illinois as their base to ship the product to other areas where the drug is outlawed, Kenneally said.
To bolster his argument, the state’s attorney cited reports of skyrocketing instances of organized crime in Colorado.
He also quoted Lt. Mark Comete of the Colorado Springs Police Vice and Narcotics Unit, who said legalization “had done nothing more than enhance the opportunity for the black market.”
Possession of fewer than 10 grams of marijuana has not been a crime in Illinois since 2016.
Although Kenneally is not opposed to decriminalizing larger amounts of marijuana, legalizing it entirely would handcuff law enforcement and prosecutors when it comes to tetrahydrocannabinol-involved driving under the influence cases, he said.
There also is no standardized or scientific test to determine whether a person is “under the influence” of marijuana.
“Short of an admission of guilt, law enforcement, in many cases, will be left with little evidence of THC impairment by which to hold the impaired driver accountable and provide justice on behalf of victims,” Kenneally said.
A major argument in support of legalized marijuana rests on the $18.4 million taxpayers could save annually in reduced incarceration costs, law enforcement spending and legal fees tied to marijuana offenses, according to the ILEPI report.
“I would rather police and state’s attorney’s go after more serious crimes than these minor offenses,” Skillicorn said.
Of the people McHenry County judges sent to prison for drug offenses in 2017, only 4.3 percent were there for marijuana-related crime, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
The remaining 95.7 percent of people were imprisoned for drug offenses involving controlled substances, such as heroin and cocaine.