Westsiders grapple with marijuana legalization

Forum prompts questions about legal nuances related to legalization

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By La Risa Lynch

Contributing Reporter

West Side residents came loaded with questions during a Nov. 5 forum on how the state's legalization of recreational marijuana would impact them.

Austin resident Tyrone Gill was was among the nearly 100 residents who attended the forum sponsored by the 15th District Police Station and the Westside Health Authority, which held the event at its 5437 W. Division St. facility. 

Gill asked the panelists, comprising representatives from the district, the Cook County State's Attorney Office, MedMen, an Oak Park cannabis dispensary, and 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro, how the legalization of cannabis will change law enforcement policies.  Gill wondered if police can still stop and search a person under "reasonable suspicion" if the police smell cannabis on a person. That, he said, gets a lot of people caught up with the law. 

"It's potent," he said. "If you do have marijuana on you now and you tell [the police] or they see some crumbs, they can search automatically. Come Jan. 1, will that old habit get reinforced with new guidelines, with new teaching techniques in the way they carry out traffic stops or will the same thing roll over." 

The answer is that the aroma of marijuana alone is not enough to arrest someone once recreational marijuana becomes legal. But if someone possess more than the allowable amount, they can get ticketed, according to police officers attending the forum.

Gill and other state residents must learn to navigate those legal nuances come Jan. 1. That's when legal sale of recreational marijuana begins. In June, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize the drug. That raised a host of questions and concerns during the forum. Many, like Gill's question, focused on law enforcement, labeling of cannabis products, dispensary locations, and security and educational outreach for youth about the new law. 

One question stumped the panelists: A resident asked about the ramifications for cancel-and-carry persons who possess the allowable amount of marijuana when stopped by the police.

"I actually don't know the answer to the question right now," said Matthew Jannusch, an assistant State's Attorney. "Guns and drugs are always a tricky thing. Right now, if you are walking around with 30 grams of plant material, you're fine. If you got your conceal carry, you're fine. I don't know about the combo."

The forum's goal was to get residents and experts in the room to answer questions and also provide information about opportunities associated with the cannabis industry, said Westside Health Authority's Quiwana Bell.

"We wanted to get ahead of it and address what a lot of people are talking about on the street," said Bell, the agency's chief operating officer. "We want to make sure that people know what to expect in eight short weeks and not get caught off guard. Right now, it is a whole bunch of misinformation and non-information."

Under the law, Illinois residents over the age of 21 can buy and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis flower, 500 milligrams of THC, the euphoric agent in marijuana, or 5 grams of cannabis concentrate. Non-residents are allowed half of that amount. Purchases can only be made from licensed dispensaries or establishments.

This is new territory for the department, said 15th District Officer Edgar Brown, who plans to host additional forums as the implementation date nears. He said the department is still hammering out details on enforcement policies, but a rule of thumb is to treat recreational marijuana consumption similar to alcohol. State law prohibits consuming alcohol in public or in a vehicle. The same goes for marijuana, Brown said.

"We are working on getting the kinks out," he said. "[But] state law states you cannot drive under the influence."

Brown and Bell are both concerned about educating Austin youth about the new law. Brown said the biggest hurdle is informing those under 21 that it still will be illegal to sell marijuana on the street in 2020. Bell noted that a lot of young people sell and use marijuana but have no idea what legalization means. According to the 2018 Illinois Youth Survey, 35 percent of 12th-graders and 10 percent of 10th-graders used marijuana in the last year.

"Remember, under 21 can't have it at all," Brown said. "They can't buy it. They can't possess it. We want to make sure we educate the community on what's about to happen."

Ald. Taliaferro agreed. When any type of vice becomes legal, like alcohol after the fall of Prohibition, there must be an education program in communities to inform people about marijuana's benefits and ill-effects, he said, adding that a black market just like for alcohol can emerge for marijuana, especially for youth who cannot legally purchase it. That, he added, raises a concern of youth buying contaminated products.

 "I know they say marijuana can't be addictive, but there has to be programs for minors involved with marijuana use or adults who are overconsuming," Taliaferro said. "That educational component has to be there."

Other questions centered on the social equity portion of the state's recreational marijuana law. That effort aims to help minority communities disproportionately penalized by the criminal justice system for marijuana possession. The law requires expungement of criminal records for marijuana possession. It also provides individuals impacted by the War on Drugs to get priority for licensing and financial opportunities to take advantage of the cannabis industry. 

Many expressed concern that blacks will still be locked out of that opportunity. The law gives first priority to sell recreational marijuana to state's existing medical marijuana dispensaries, many of which are white-owned. Eleven such dispensaries operate in the city and the law gives them an opportunity to open one additional. 

"That's why there is so much talk about social equity," Taliaferro said. "There are no black owners. That becomes an economic loss in the black community or an economic gain in the white community."

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