Marijuana arrests plummet in 5 largest suburbs of Illinois

Marijuana arrests dropped significantly in Chicago’s largest suburbs, a change many say is caused by decriminalization and a change of attitude toward the drug.

Although recreational marijuana will be legalized in Illinois starting Jan. 1, suburban police were already making far fewer arrests for crimes such as possession and manufacture of cannabis years before lawmakers signed off on legalization, police department data shows.

Arrests for marijuana-related crimes plummeted by a range of 63% and roughly 80% from 2015 to 2018 in the five largest suburbs — Aurora, Naperville, Elgin, Joliet and Waukegan.

The state had deemed most of these communities as neighborhoods with high numbers of such arrests, the Aurora Beacon-News reported. The numbers through October are expected to show another decrease in 2019.

A major reason for the decline in arrests is a 2016 change in state law that moved to issue citations instead of arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

But another contributing factor is the changing of attitudes toward marijuana and a shift in law enforcement’s priorities well before state lawmakers moved to legalize it in May, some authorities said.

Steven Stelter, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said the change in the law in 2016 made it more challenging for police to do their jobs.

“We arrest somebody for marijuana, and the courts just throw it out because they look at it as just a real minor offense,” he said.

Overall, the mindset in Illinois has changed since the drug was legalized elsewhere, Stelter said, noting that he and his agency oppose marijuana legalization.

“The real mindset is, what’s the big deal?” he said.

Kenny Myles can attest to the shift in attitude.

In 2007, a northwest suburban police department arrested Myles and charged him with possession of seven grams of marijuana, which is a misdemeanor, and with manufacture with intent to deliver of more than 200 grams, a felony, he said.

But about three years later, Chicago police caught Myles smoking weed and opted not to pursue charges, he said.

“I can tell the attitude as a whole community has changed,” he said. “Me, having my run-ins, I’m still a little bit more shy to do certain things. But I do see it shifting.”

In Joliet, arrests dropped from 233 in 2015 to 49 in 2018, and in Elgin they dropped from 252 to 66 over the same period, according to numbers provided by each city’s police department.

Aurora saw a decline from 659 in 2015 to 202 in 2018, police department data indicates. In Waukegan, they dropped from 201 to 74 during the same years.

Naperville’s marijuana arrests dropped to 42 in 2018 from 260 in 2015.

“There hasn’t been a concentrated effort to sit there and look at cannabis differently,” Joliet Sgt. Christopher Botzum said. “It’s just applying what the law states.”