Legal marijuana sales are coming to Illinois in January. That’s the law, plain and simple. But where exactly can you smoke pot in Chicago? That’s not as clear, and in a statement last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and interim Police Superintendent Charlie Beck tried to shed light on the issue.
“While the state law prohibits cannabis consumption in a ‘public place,’ which is defined as anywhere you can be observed by others in the public, the Chicago Police Department recognizes that an individual using cannabis in their own backyard or balcony poses no direct threat to public safety, and no resident should be arrested or ticketed solely for such a scenario,” the statement reads.
The ambiguity of the state law was intentional, says Ben Ruddell, director of Criminal Justice Policy at the ACLU of Illinois.
“I think there was a desire on the part of the General Assembly to allow a degree of local control, and they did not, it’s true, get down to the level of front porches, back porches, balconies, etc., when they put in this public place restriction,” Ruddell said. “But the common, everyday meaning of a public place to most people wouldn’t include your backyard or your back porch or your balcony. And as a practical matter, people are going to need someplace to legally consume this ostensibly legal product. If we’re going to just not repeat the steps of the past and have everybody be contacted by the police when they want to consume it.”
The statement from Lightfoot and Beck was prompted by a recent video produced by the CPD to inform the public of the upcoming changes in policies around cannabis in the city.
It’s unclear whether the city and the police department are ready for the rollout of the legal and regulated marijuana market, according to the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“I think legalization will be a very bad idea in Illinois,” said Peter Bensinger, who also served as the director of Illinois Department of Corrections and chairman of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
“It’s going to attract more criminal organizations. It’s going to poison our youth and in fact our poison and treatment centers will have many more admissions. It’s going to cause serious traffic and highway fatalities. And it’s not going to pour in a lot of money because the traffickers will sell at lower prices,” he said. “This is a formula for bad health and bad safety.”
Of course, legalization is no longer in question. But whether city officials are ready for it is another matter.
“I think this city and every other jurisdiction in the state are in some ways not ready for this in that they haven’t planned for every contingency like the public use question,” said Ruddell. “But that’s no reason to delay. The sooner we roll this out, the sooner we’ll begin the process of working out the kinks, figuring out where we need to recalibrate, where we need to do trailer bills or adjust ordinances.”
“If we delay, we’re never gonna get ready,” he added. “We need to get to the work of rectifying the harm that cannabis prohibition has caused – sooner rather than later – and accept that it’s not going to be perfect and that it’s a work in progress.”