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As Illinois rolls out medical marijuana, little impact expected here

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Nico Savidge
October 5, 2013

BELOIT—Drive west out of Beloit on Shirland Avenue, just past the Rock River, and you won't notice many differences on either side of the road.

Stateline Liquors on the left gives it away; the center line on this part of Shirland Avenue divides more than traffic, it splits Wisconsin and Illinois.

Despite that division, you'll still see small houses with big lawns and businesses with cracked parking lots either way you look. The only clues to what makes the sides different are the phone numbers those businesses advertise and the signs for street names—green to your right and white to your left.

Another distinction is coming to Shirland Avenue soon, though.

Starting next year, anyone with a doctor's prescription and a state registration can have up to 2 ounces of marijuana on the south side of the center line in Illinois. On the other side, here in Wisconsin, that pot will remain as illegal as it ever was—no matter what your doctor says.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in August signed the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, making Illinois the 20th state to legalize marijuana for medical use.

For the first time, state-sanctioned pot will soon be on Wisconsin's southern doorstep, with the potential to spill over into cities such as Beloit and Janesville.

But as state agencies in the Land of Lincoln go to work implementing and regulating medical cannabis, authorities in Wisconsin's border communities say it won't mean much to them, and as such aren't planning to change how they enforce marijuana laws.

“Medical marijuana doesn't impact what we do,” Janesville police Sgt. Jim Holford said.

“Maybe we'll see more people pulling out those cards,” said Capt. Dana Nigbor of the Walworth County Sheriff's Office, referring to medical marijuana users' registration cards, which aren't valid in Wisconsin. “Other than that, I don't see it being a big impact. It's not going to change how we do business with them.”

That's in part because of the economics of the illicit marijuana market and because laws that changed on one side of Shirland Avenue are still the same on the other.

High quality, low volume

The main reason police aren't concerned about marijuana from Illinois is that medicinal pot from other states hasn't proven to be a big issue in the years it's been legal, authorities said.

Like with other drugs, the bulk of marijuana in Rock County—your cheaper, “everyday” pot—comes from Mexico, Beloit police Sgt. Dan Tilley said.

Medical marijuana is more potent and has higher quality, Tilley said, but it has a price tag to match.

“It's more rare than the Mexican marijuana because it's higher grade and it's more costly,” Tilley said.

While a pound of cheap marijuana could run a dealer $1,000 or less, medical cannabis from states such as California might cost three times that much, Tilley said.

So while authorities sometimes come across medical marijuana shipped in from other states, it occupies a far smaller piece of the pot market.

Medical cannabis proponents and state officials in Illinois also say restrictions will keep the drug out of illicit markets and neighboring states.

Three state agencies will regulate how marijuana is cultivated, distributed and prescribed in Illinois, said Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Illinois' cannabis will be grown at 22 state-operated centers, Arnold said. Unlike in other states, patients won't be able to grow marijuana at home, and the number of stores where patients can buy the drug will be limited to 60.

“Illinois is going to have some of the most stringent laws when it comes to medical cannabis,” Arnold said. “It's going to be a very regulated process.”

Wisconsin impacts aside, medical marijuana won't even make it to Illinois for a while. The law goes into effect Jan. 1, but that date merely marks the start of a 120-day period for state agencies to set up the rules for medical marijuana. At the end of that period there's time for review and public comment, all of which means Illinois' first marijuana crop likely won't even be planted until summer at the earliest.

While Illinois' law will bring medical marijuana closer than it's ever been to Wisconsin's southern communities, local cops say they don't expect the legitimate trade in Illinois will translate to a busier black market up here.

Things could get interesting at Alpine Valley Music Theatre, the Walworth County music venue where deputies frequently bust concertgoers for pot possession, Nigbor said. Other than that, there won't be much difference.

In Janesville, Holford said, “The amount of marijuana being available is not going to change a bit.

“There's still going to be an illicit pipeline of other sources of marijuana that are not going to go away just because you passed a medical marijuana law,” he said. “I don't see it having an impact on us at all.”

No changes to enforcement

For proponents of marijuana legalization, Illinois' move toward medical cannabis is another step in a broader national trend loosening restrictions on pot.

The Illinois law means 40 percent of states, plus the District of Columbia, now allow some form of medical marijuana. Voters in Washington and Colorado have outright legalized the drug for recreational use by adults.

Even federal authorities have started easing their stance on pot, said Gary Storck, co-founder of Wisconsin's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and an advocate for full legalization.

“The tipping point may have been reached,” Storck said. “It's only harming Wisconsin, continuing to live in marijuana prohibition.”

While local cops recognize the changes to marijuana laws around the nation, they don't have any plans to alter how their departments police the drug.

“It's still against the law here,” Nigbor said. “People are still possessing it, selling it, and it's still against the law.”

The Walworth County Sheriff's Office seized about 13 pounds of marijuana and 247 plants in 2012, Nigbor said. Janesville police seized five pounds, department statistics show.

Two Democratic state legislators, Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison and Sen. John Erpenbach of Middleton, introduced a bill to allow medical marijuana in Wisconsin on Thursday. This is the third time Taylor and Erpenbach have introduced similar legislation, and as happened in 2010 and 2011 the bill is expected to go nowhere in the Republican-controlled statehouse.

Tilley recognized a national trend that's more accepting of pot and suspected the drug might eventually be decriminalized nationwide, he said, though he added it likely won't happen soon.

Still, while his department will keep enforcing marijuana laws, it's more concerned about harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

“(Marijuana) is most used, but it's probably the lowest priority,” he said. “Heroin is killing people, and crack is so addictive, so that's why we try to focus on that.”

No matter the priority, Storck sees any effort to enforce marijuana laws as misguided.

“Any thoughtful law enforcement person has to really consider that they can't enforce all the laws, and they have to use their discretion,” he said. “Laws that involve public safety or crimes that have victims should be the ones that get the most priority—not somebody smoking a joint.”



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