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Wisconsin police monitor recreational marijuana in Illinois

A 2017 report on the effect legal recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington had on neighboring states found “a sharp increase in marijuana possession arrests in border counties.” But checks with police along the Illinois-Wisconsin state line have shown no such rise, so far.

Customers wait outside Sunnyside, a pot dispensary in Wrigleyville.
Customers outside a Wrigleyville marijuana dispensary in January 2020. Wisconsin officials are keeping an eye on sales in Illinois and their impact on counties along the Illinois-Wisconsin state line.
Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Despite dispensaries quickly popping up along Illinois’ northern border after that state legalized recreational marijuana almost a year ago, local law enforcement officials say they have not yet seen any major impacts in Wisconsin.

Officials with the Rock County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Janesville and Beloit said they have not seen any rise in marijuana possession charges this year — though they caution the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may cloud the data as it has drastically affected businesses and travel.

“It’s such an anomaly year that I don’t know if we can draw any conclusions as to the impact at this point, but we’ll keep an eye on it,” said Sgt. Mark Ratzlaff, who is in charge of Janesville Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit.

Recreational marijuana was officially legalized in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020, with dispensaries opening up soon after in Chicago, Rockford and South Beloit.

A 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research report on the spillover effects of recreational marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington on neighboring states found “a sharp increase in marijuana possession arrests in border counties” relative to non-border counties.

State and local officials said about a year ago they would monitor the drug, which remains illegal in Wisconsin, to see if any major effects are noticed. So far the impacts have been minimal, according to officials in several southern Wisconsin communities.

The Rock County Sheriff’s Office logged 200 arrests for possession of THC — the ingredient in cannabis that can produce a high — as of Dec. 21 this year, compared with 179 arrests in the same timeframe last year. In the same span in 2018, there were 246 such arrests.

Cmdr. Jude Maurer said arrests and citations fluctuate from year to year, and so far the department has not had to make any changes to operations related to marijuana.

The same could be said in Beloit, near where a dispensary opened up just south of the border in South Beloit.

“There might have been a handful at most, of people who were arrested for possession of marijuana that said they got it legally in Illinois,” said Beloit Police Inspector Thomas Stigler. “It’s had a very minimal impact.”

In November, AAA-The Auto Club Group issued a statement noting that the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes who had recently used marijuana doubled in Washington state since it legalized recreational use in late 2012.

As with alcohol, marijuana can slow a driver’s reaction time and increase the risk of a crash, AAA public affairs director Nick Jarmusz said.

“Impaired driving jeopardizes public safety on our roadways regardless of whether the substance used is legal, prescribed, obtained over-the counter or purchased in a retail setting,” Jarmusz said.

There were a handful of attempts to legalize some form of marijuana use by Wisconsin lawmakers last year, but none of the efforts gained much traction in the GOP-led Legislature.

The Legislature has not convened since April, but discussions are taking place for a session in early 2021. However, it is expected to focus primarily on COVID-19-related measures. Marijuana legalization, whether medicinal or recreational, could come up next year, but it remains to be seen if the topic will receive much support from state Republicans.