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Decriminalization, Legalization, and Marijuana Use in Illinois

Rolling Meadows Criminal Defense Lawyer

With many states jumping on the marijuana legalization bandwagon, whether it be for medical or recreational use, “legalization” and “decriminalization” are two words often used interchangeably, although they have different meanings under the eyes of the law. In short, decriminalization is when a law is “still in the books,” so to speak, but criminal penalties are lessened or enforcement is not exercised. Legalization is when an action is actually taken out of the criminal code and can no longer be enforced. The difference between the two is more than just semantics; these are important words when understanding when it is permissible to utilize marijuana for recreational or medicinal use only, and whether (or if) a person will be punished under the law.

Illinois Marijuana Laws: Current

When understanding marijuana laws, the biggest distinction in most states, including Illinois, is whether the marijuana is for medicinal or for recreational use. Recreational use of marijuana is illegal under Illinois law. It is illegal for an individual in the State of Illinois to grow, manufacture, sell, transport, use, smoke, or otherwise possess marijuana for recreational purposes. On the other hand, under the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, individuals with a doctor’s diagnosis of certain medical conditions may be eligible to apply for identification permitting them to purchase medical marijuana at dispensaries. There are, of course, limits on the quantity that can be purchased or possessed at one time, and parameters regarding the types of medical conditions considered appropriate to be remedied through use of medical marijuana.

Medical Marijuana

The program Illinois implemented in 2013 is technically a “pilot” program to determine the interest levels, safety, and monetary considerations of implementing such a program in Illinois. As of now, however, no dispensaries are actually open for access and no patients have been able to lawfully obtain medical marijuana in Illinois. Access to these facilities is not expected to occur until later this year, meaning patients are still waiting for relief from the program. One of the rationales behind legalizing medical marijuana is safety. As recently noted by The Chicago Tribune on the matter, most users prefer to buy marijuana from legal sources; purchasing through even a somewhat regulated dispensary will give users assurances as to where the product is coming from.

The use of medical marijuana is still controversial, despite many states legalizing the practice. There are concerns about easier access to the drug for teens, health and safety concerns, and driving under the influence considerations. Given the slow start to the pilot program, only time will tell whether the program will be a success in Illinois.

The Caveat

Even in states that recognize the legality of medical marijuana, marijuana is still a federal crime under the Controlled Substances Act. This creates a confusing situation in which federal law is at odds with state law, even in states where both recreational and medicinal marijuana is legalized. Federal law takes precedent over state law; if a federal law differs from a state law, the federal law prevails every time until it is found unconstitutional or is repealed. With the amount of states that are “legalizing” marijuana, it is important to understand that the use of marijuana is not technically legal anywhere in America.

Despite this confusing fact, there is good news for medicinal marijuana users in Illinois. Though the federal government has never officially decriminalized the use of marijuana, there have been numerous memoranda, official comments, and annotations to the Controlled Substances Act, making it so that federal law enforcement agencies will not (and have not, up until this point) enforce the relevant federal law in states that have legalized marijuana. This is the federal government’s way of not endorsing, but not disapproving of, the state’s (limited) autonomy in making laws related to the welfare of its citizens.

That means in states where recreational marijuana is legalized, such as Washington and Colorado, the federal government will, more than likely, not enforce the federal law banning the use of marijuana. Furthermore, in states where medical marijuana is legalized, such as Illinois, the federal government, more than likely, will not punish those utilizing medical marijuana, as the state has made it clear that they do not want criminal penalties associated with the use of medical marijuana. In Illinois, however, recreational use of marijuana is not lawful and federal law enforcement agencies can (and will) continue to prosecute recreational drug users and/or distributors.

Illinois Marijuana Laws: The Future

In May, the Illinois legislature voted to approve a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. As discussed above, decriminalization is far from legalization in terms of the possibility of enforcement, but for advocates of improved access to marijuana, it is a step toward Illinois joining the many other states that have been on board with the decriminalization movement as well.

Until then, participants under the medical marijuana pilot program must wait patiently for dispensaries to open up in order to remain in compliance with state law, and recreational users must refrain from using marijuana if they wish to remain in compliance with both state and federal law. Despite the lessening or eradication of penalties surrounding marijuana use in various states throughout the country, marijuana use remains a federal crime and can deeply affect your personal and professional life if you use any controlled substance illegally.

Rolling Meadows Drug Crimes Attorney

Attorney Donald J. Cosley understands both the federal and state laws surrounding drug use and can help defend you against criminal accusations. Having a drug crime on your record can be damaging to your professional and personal reputation, and we know how to navigate the system in order to put you in the best position possible to defeat or lessen your charges. If you or anyone you know has been charged with a drug-related crime in the state of Illinois, contact our Rolling Meadows office at 847-253-3100 to learn more about your legal rights and let us help you today.

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