There clearly is a national trend toward decriminalization and legalization of marijuana possession and use. The so-called “common-sense argument” is that people should not suffer severe legal penalties for possessing a joint or for having a small amount of marijuana in their systems days or two to three weeks after they smoked it. But the reasons that Illinois police chiefs continue to oppose the decriminalization efforts in Illinois are just as clear.
Our biggest interest is in keeping people safe and making communities safer. People mistakenly believe that it’s as easy to identify a driver impaired by marijuana as it is by alcohol. That’s not true. Marijuana stays in one’s system much longer than alcohol does. Police have no instrument like a breathalyzer, which tests alcohol levels, that can provide the same level of reliability about impairment from marijuana. As the New York Times has reported, the standard field sobriety tests for catching drivers under the influence of alcohol are much more reliable than testing for a stoned driver, despite the mistaken reporting about this in Illinois and nationwide. Police on the street know this from experience.
There is evidence, too, that in cities and states where marijuana can be used more freely, more people are injuring themselves, heading to hospital emergency rooms for marijuana-related issues and committing other crimes while under the influence. So is an unintended consequence of decriminalization that we are trading one perceived problem – punishments too harsh – for other criminal acts and more incidents where people get hurt?
Decriminalization also more readily adds a party drug to people’s homes, hotels, and private recreational spaces. Police are not interested in ruining lives because people have small amounts of marijuana. But the absence of indisputable scientific evidence about marijuana’s safety and the serious problems that we have encountered in reliably identifying drivers impaired by marijuana cause us to continue to oppose the decriminalization of marijuana use and possession. As we say in the profession, be safe out there this weekend.
Ed Wojcicki of Springfield is the executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.