The following letter was sent by McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally to legislators who will represent McHenry County next year:
I am writing to offer my basis for opposing the expected legislation legalizing cannabis for recreational use in Illinois.
As you consider this politically-charged issue, I urge you to give primary consideration to the evidence-based opinions of health care professionals and law-enforcement over the dubious claims of private-industry marijuana advocates that stand to make billions of dollars through the legalization of marijuana.
Additionally, I encourage you to be especially skeptical of those advocates who portray cannabis as a panacea that will miraculously abate any number of obstinate social problems, such as government debt or funding shortfalls, crime, overcrowding of prisons, opioid abuse, and alcoholism.
Despite claims that cannabis is effortlessly available in Illinois, legalization, as documented in Colorado, will significantly increase use.
In 2016, nearly one-third of Colorado adults ages 18-25 reported using cannabis in the previous month, up from 21% in 2006. FN1
Additionally, the usage rates of adults 25 years of age or older more than doubled between 2006
and 2014. FN2
Of most concern, youth cannabis use increased 12% in Colorado since legalization.
Two years after legalization, Colorado youth were ranked first in the nation for cannabis use over the last month, with a rate of usage that was 56% higher than the national average. FN3
As an illustration of just how high use rates have soared, there are now more cannabis dispensaries in Colorado than McDonalds or Starbucks. FN4
Cannabis is not harmless, and increased use through legalization will have health consequences.
In 2016, the American Medical Association reaffirmed its evidence-based position that cannabis is a “dangerous drug and as such is a public health concern.” FN5
In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences completed its comprehensive report on the health effects of cannabis, considering over 10,000 medical studies. FN6
The National Academy of Sciences found
- “substantial,” or
evidence for the benefits of cannabis were limited to the following:
- Treatment of chronic pain in adults;
- Treatment of chemo-therapy-induced nausea and vomiting; and
- Improving short-term sleep outcomes in patients suffering from various illnesses. FN7
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FN1 ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH INTENSITY DRUG TRAFFICKING AREA, THE LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA IN COLORADO: THE IMPACT 56 (Vol. 3,
September, 2015), available at
FN2 Id. at 61.
FN3 Id. at 2.
FN4 Id. at 137.
FN5 American Medical Association House of Delegates, Resolution: 907 (I-16): Clinical Implications and PolicyConsiderations of Cannabis Use, available at https://assets.ama-assn.org/sub/meeting/documents/i16-resolution-907.pdf.
FN6 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, Committee’s Conclusions (January, 2017), available at https://www.nap.edu/resource/24625/Cannabis_committee_conclusions.pdf.
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As for the dangers or morbidity-inducing effects of cannabis, the National Academy of Sciences found “conclusive,” “substantial,” or “moderate” evidence that cannabis use:
- impairs the cognitive domains of learning, memory, and attention;
- increases the risk of developing schizophrenia or other psychoses, with the highest risk in
the most frequent users;
- increases the risk for the development of depressive disorders;
- increases the incidence of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, with the highest risk in the most frequent users;
- increases the risk of suicidal completion;
- increases the risk of substance abuse dependence and substance abuse disorder for substances including alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs;
- increases the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease;
- worsens respiratory symptoms and the frequency of bronchitis episodes;
- increases the risk of a motor vehicle accident;
- (when used by mothers during gestation) lowers infant birth weight; and
- increases the risk of suffering from social anxiety disorder. FN8
Of particular note, is the finding that far from being a substitute, cannabis use actually increases risk of abusing alcohol, opioids, and other intoxicating substances.
Moreover, the prospect that cannabis legalization might forge a broader path to opioid abuse in counties, like McHenry, which have been hit hardest by the catastrophic effects of the opioid epidemic, is chilling.
Recently, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that respondents who reported cannabis use in the last year were nearly three times as likely to initiate prescription opioid misuse. FN9
Similarly, the CDC found that cannabis users are more than three times as likely than non-users to become addicted to heroin. FN10
Legalizing cannabis will also have far-reaching social consequences, especially in the arenas of crime and the safety of roadways.
After legalization in Colorado, the number of traffic deaths where the driver tested positive for cannabis more than doubled from 55 to 125, with overall traffic deaths increasing 16% from 481 to 608.
Any increase in traffic deaths due to a controlled substance is unacceptable in a state whose strategic highway safety plan has a goal of zero traffic fatalities.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary component of cannabis, impairs the motor performance (e.g. reaction time, tracking) and cognitive function (e.g. attention, decision making, impulse control, memory) needed for safe driving in a dose-related manner.
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FN9 Mark Olfson, Maldie M. Wall, Shang-Min Liu, & Carlso Blanco, Cannabis Use and Risk of Prescription Opiod Use Disorder in the United States, AM. J. OF PSYCHIATRY, (Sep. 26, 2017),
FN10 Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Today’s Heroine Epidemic Infographics,
https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heroin/infographic.htmlhttps://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heroin/infographic.html (last visited Nov. 18, 2018).
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Performance impairments are maximal during the first hour after smoking and decline over the course of approximately four hours after use. FN11
The problem is that there is no standardized or scientific test to determine whether a person is “high” or “under the influence” of cannabis at any given time. Unlike alcohol that is water soluble, THC is hydrophobic and fat soluble.
This means that THC, unlike alcohol, is mostly eliminated from the blood within 30 minutes after ingestion, migrating quickly to fatty parts of the body like the brain.
While the degree of alcohol impairment correlates fairly well with blood alcohol concentration, THC blood concentration is not closely related to impairment.
Accordingly, blood or urine screens, usually acquired hours after a defendant was involved in a motor vehicle crash or arrested for DUI, are mostly ineffective in informing law enforcement of the degree to which a suspect was impaired by THC when driving. FN12
Field sobriety tests are equally problematic. Accepted field sobriety tests, such as the one-leg-stand and walk-and-turn, were designed and proven to identify drivers under the influence of alcohol, not THC.
While there is a 12-step drug recognition program officers can use, it can only establish whether a driver has recently ingested one of seven drugs, including THC, not whether he or she was under the influence to the extent that driving was impaired.
In view of the foregoing, Illinois is currently ill-equipped to combat the lethal threat of driving under the influence of THC.
This is especially true for impaired drivers that have caused serious crashes, are taken to the hospital themselves, and not made available for interview/observation by police until after they are medically treated.
Short of an admission of guilt, law enforcement in many cases will be left with little evidence of THC impairment by which to hold the impaired driver accountable and provide justice on behalf of victims.
In addition to causing more traffic deaths, cannabis legalization may also increase crime.
After legalization in Colorado, crime increased 11% between 2013 and 2016, compared with 0.3% for the rest of the Country.
Violent crime saw the largest increase, increasing 25% since 2013. FN13
In 2016, the District Attorney of Colorado Springs reported out that 8 out of the 22 homicides from that year were related to cannabis. FN14
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FN11 R. Andrew Sewell, James Polling, & Mehmet Sofuoglu, The Effects of Cannabis Compared with Alcohol on Driving.
FN18 AM. J. ADDICT. 185 (2009), available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2722956/; Rebecca L.
Hartman & Marilyn Huestis, Cannabis Effects on Driving, 59 CLIN CHEM (2012), available at
FN12 U.S. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, NAT’L HIGHWAY TRAFFIC AND SAFETY ADMINISTRATION, MARIJUANA IMPAIRED DRIVING, A REPORT TO CONGRESS 4-7 (July, 2017), available at
FN13 COLORADO CRIME STATISTICS, https://coloradocrimestats.state.co.us/tops/ (last visited Nov. 18, 2018).
FN14 Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact 121 (Vol. 5, October, 2015), available at
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Some of the increased crime can be explained by high-risk populations migrating to Colorado (e.g. 30% of the surveyed 500 newcomers at Salvation Army Crossroads Homeless Shelter acknowledge coming to Colorado because cannabis was legal). FN15
The primary explanation, especially for the violent crime, may be more sinister.
Specifically, the permissive legal and cultural environment in Colorado has attracted drug cartels, which have moved in and set up grow operations in plain-sight.
These cartels first take advantage of the black market in Colorado, made up consumers who do not wish to pay the exorbitant cannabis tax or prefer not to be seen going into a cannabis dispensary.
Mostly, however, cartels are using Colorado as a base of operations to traffic cannabis to surrounding states. FN16
Since legalization, organized crime filings have skyrocketed, going from 1 to 40. FN17
Lieutenant Mark Comete of the Colorado Spring Police Vice and Narcotics Unit commented that legalization “has done nothing more than anything to enhance the opportunity for the black market.” FN18
The DEA has also weighed in, reporting that in 2014, there had been a noticeable increase in “organized networks of sophisticated residential cannabis grows in Colorado that are orchestrated and operated by drug trafficking organizations.” FN19
Cannabis legalization will do nothing to reduce prison populations.
Despite claims to the contrary, no one, not ever, is being sentenced to prison for possessing small or moderate amounts of cannabis in Illinois.
In 2016, Illinois decriminalized cannabis, making those in possession of 10 grams (i.e. a sandwich bag) or less subject only to a fine.
Over the last three years, only two defendants in McHenry County were sent to prison on a cannabis related offense, both of whom were involved in high-volume trafficking.
We do, however, imprison defendants for violent crime, which as discussed, will likely increase considerably.
As we continue to trudge the long road out of the opioid epidemic, borne from the outsized promises and cherry-picked science of the pharmaceutical industry, it is disheartening to see legislators willing to unleash recreational cannabis with all the driving force of capitalism before the health and social consequences are fully understood.
It is far better to wait for the ongoing experiments in Colorado, Washington, Michigan, and Canada to reach fully mature and conclusive results over the next several years.
This is especially true in view of the fact that once a prohibition is removed, it is not easily restored.
Couching legalization in the idea that it is an unacceptable limitation on freedom or by making analogies to alcohol are easily refuted.
Legalized cannabis is not inherent or necessary to the promotion or sustenance of a free society.
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FN15 Id. at 128.
FN6 See Id. at 159; see Legal pot hasn’t Stopped Colo. black market, USA TODAY (April 4, 2014, 5:52 PM),
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/04/colo-pot-black-market/7292263/; see Sally
Mamdooh, Mexican drug cartels are taking full advantage of Colorado’s marijuana laws, DENVER ABC 7 (April 7, 2016, 9:02 PM), https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local news/marijuana/mexican-drug-cartels-are-taking-full-advantage-of-colorados-marijuana-laws; see Briar Stewart, Why Colorado’s black market is booming 4 years after
legalization, CBC NEWS (May 28, 2018, 4:00 AM), https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/colorado-marijuana-black-market-1.4647198.
FN17 EDUCATING VOICES, LETTER TO GOVERNOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER (MARCH, 2017), available at http://www.educatingvoices.net/news/133-scientists-expose
FN18 Legal pot hasn’t Stopped Colo. black market, USA TODAY (April 4, 2014, 5:52 PM),
FN19 DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY, RESIDENTIAL MARIJUANA GROWS IN COLORADO: THE NEW METH HOUSES? (June, 2016), available at
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Freedom is the ability to pursue important human aims, not merely act upon private pleasures.
Public policy need not be oriented toward broadening to the extent possible the tedious amusement a minority find in an intoxicating substance.
Lastly, if cannabis is analogous to alcohol, then that is all the more reason it should remain illegal.
In this State, no substance for so long has been more devastating to the health of citizens, cohesion of families, and fabric of society than alcohol.
I would estimate that alcohol abuse is involved in or upstream of more than 50% of the crimes we prosecute.
While it may be prudent to allow alcohol, which has been in customary use in Illinois since its founding in 1818, to remain legal and strictly regulated, it is another thing entirely to lift a ban on a dangerous substance that is not in customary use in an attempt to ensure that does not become customary.
I welcome the opportunity to remain in close contact with you on this topic as the process unfolds, be a part of the legislative discussion to the extent you believe is helpful, and offer legislative counter-proposals to mitigate harm in the event recreational cannabis appears inevitable.