SPRINGFIELD, IL. 8 May, 2015 — Marijuana possession will be ticketed like a parking violation if the Illinois Senate approves a bipartisan decriminalization bill next week. The bill will be debated before a floor vote, and is expected to pass, however there is opposition from groups such as Stop DUID and the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM), who are concerned that a 15-nanogram THC threshold for drivers to be considered legally impaired is too high.
The Senate Criminal Law Committee voted 9-3 on Wednesday to approve the measure, House Bill 218, which would establish a statewide “uniform cannabis ticket” with a fine of $125 for possession of 15 grams or less of cannabis (just under a half ounce). Ahead of the new legislation, some cities, including Chicago, have already given police the option of issuing a ticket instead of arresting an offender.
AAIM decriminalization, but wants Illinois to adopt the same 5-nanogram THC threshold set in Colorado, where recreational cannabis is legal. The group believes the higher threshold will make Illinois roads more dangerous.
In fatal or serious crashes, Illinois state law presently deems drivers under the influence even if they only have trace amounts of THC in their body, and prosecutors do not have to prove impairment in court. This will change under the new legislation. A driver who causes a serious accident could still be convicted of DUI-marijuana if under the 15-nanogram THC limit, however prosecutors would have to prove impairment in court.
AAIM board member Elizabeth Earleywine, a former prosecutor, said this mean people could be showing signs of impairment and yet, if tested, may be found to be under the proposed threshold. “We’re concerned this gives carte blanche to people to smoke as much marijuana as they want and get behind the wheel of a car,” she said.
Sen. Michael Noland (D) of Elgin, the bill’s primary sponsor, noted AAIM’s concerns but said lawmakers wanted to strike a balance. “We’re creating a standard that is more or less right in the middle. I think we’re doing the right thing,” Noland said. “We have to move ahead somehow, and I think we doing it in a real responsible way.”
Research suggests a simplistic THC-threshold measure may not be an effective way to determine impairment. Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Department of Transportation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and others show impairment levels can be relative to tolerance, which varies significantly between individuals.
Cannabis Action Coalition executive director Steve Sarich says, “You cannot determine impairment by measuring blood content for any drug except alcohol. I know that everyone want a “number”. They want to make this issue a simple as they’ve made determining impairment with alcohol, but it simply does not work that way.”
Sarich is certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a “Drug Recognition Expert” and appears as an expert witness in DUI cases. He said a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study showed that unimpaired drivers are being arrested and convinced based on unscientific limits that treat drugs like alcohol.
The bill has the support of Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez. Co-sponsor Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D) says she believes Governor Bruce Rauner (R) is neutral on the bill. The new law would take effect in 180 days, and the 15-nanogram threshold would then apply to all traffic accident cases involving marijuana, including those where someone is injured or killed in a crash.