The law allowing recreational marijuana in Illinois takes effect next year, and people are trying to get ready. The law calls for expungement of criminal records for some past convictions involving possession of marijuana. One person working on that is Winnebago County State's Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross, and she has a number of concerns.
Hite Ross said the law presents something of a challenge for the community, because even though marijuana will be legal under state law, recreational and medical marijuana remain a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law.
"And so individuals need to understand," she said, "that they still could face federal prosecution for possessing marijuana."
Hite Ross sees both positives and potential negatives to watch for in the new law. Provisions directing tax dollars to help underprivileged areas, and helping those previously convicted for marijuana possession, could be positive for the community -- if, in fact, they happen.
"However," she said, "I certainly wish that, and hope some of those funds could also be channeled to law enforcement and education because I perceive that law enforcement will be taxed with illegal grows that will spring up. They may not have the resources. And certainly with children, there should be some component of education for the harm that could be caused. There's science that says marijuana is a drug that could inhibit brain development in children."
Hite Ross said she has a plan for the part of the law allowing expungement of an individual's criminal record of past convictions for possession of less than 30 grams. Her office is looking at records going back several years, up through next Jan. 1, when the law takes effect.
"I have already met with my narcotics unit," she said, "to try to flag those cases that are coming in currently, and that will be newly filed through the end of the year so that we can be proactive, and making sure that we address that component of the statute regarding expungement of records."
Expungment isn't the only thing Hite Ross is working on. She reached out to local leaders in government and community organizations to put together an educational forum on the new law and its effects.
"I want the community to be fully advised," she said, "that legalizing recreational marijuana doesn't mean that other laws are not still in place. For example: reckless driving, driving under the influence. Again, there are certain categories that remain in place. And individuals should understand as well, that employers can still set the tone in their workplace, they can still require individuals to be drug free."
Hite Ross said that includes fire and police, as well as her own office. The law also restricts who can grow marijuana.
"You can't just have your own garden of pot in the backyard," she said. "I think it's important for the public to understand that."
Hite Ross worries that some people will think just because the state legalized recreational marijuana, they can use it how they want without any problems.
"I would hope that the state of Illinois would learn from the opioid crisis that just because it's legal doesn't mean that it's safe," she said. "And I think individuals still need to take care in the use of marijuana, if they decide to do so, because they could end up in a crisis. We have seen with the opioid crisis where it is legal medication, but it had a high potential for abuse, and lives were devastated and communities impacted."
She and her office will be doing their part to see that doesn't happen come Jan. 1.