Editor's Note: This article is part of "Smoke on the Water," an ongoing series chronicling the legalization of adult use marijuana in Illinois and how it affects on the riverland communities of Kentucky and Illinois.
BY DEREK OPERLE
With recreational marijuana sales becoming legal in Illinois on Wednesday, Kentucky law enforcement is adjusting to the new reality on the other side of the Ohio River.
Paducah Police Chief Brian Laird thinks that local agencies won't know the true impact of Illinois' legalization on the area for months.
"We won't know if we'll see much impact or not," Laird said in a December interview. "It's hard to anticipate what the impact will be. ... You can't change it so we'll just have to respond and react as we would with anything else.
"It will continue to evolve over time, and time will dictate how we have to act."
McCracken County Sheriff Matt Carter tends to agree that an accurate picture of the situation won't develop for perhaps a year and hopes to keep his agency flexible.
"Right now it's anybody's guess as to how this will affect us locally in the long run," Carter said. "We're going to continue making the same vigorous efforts that we have in place."
Trooper Adam Jones, the public affairs officer for Kentucky State Police Post 1 near West Viola, concurred in an interview Thursday.
"We've been dealing with marijuana for so long. It's not going to change how we look for it or patrol," Jones said. "Now that Illinois has legalized it, we're still going to do what we've always done."
Both Laird and Carter were hesitant when asked to speculate on increases in marijuana-related charges in the area, though each agreed there could potentially be slight upticks in DUI and possession charges in the coming months.
"I just don't know that we'll see a major increase in marijuana activity in the area. It's not time to reinvent the wheel," Carter explained. "We'll just continue to do the job that we're doing and enforce the laws that are in place here in Kentucky."
The reasons, for both of them, being that marijuana charges have become less harshly punished in recent years.
"It wasn't necessarily decriminalized but they lessened the up-front penalty for it, for lack of better words," Laird explained.
"The laws have been lightened on arrestable offenses, and it's now very uncommon for us to arrest people for marijuana possession," Carter added. "The people who go to jail typically have a very large amount that comes with a trafficking charge or there's an underlying offense of greater consequence."
A marijuana possession charge, as it currently stands in Kentucky, is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $250 citation or 45 days in jail.
Trafficking charges vary widely and can come with just about any amount of possession, extending from under 8 ounces to over 5 pounds. The charge is often situational, based on the amount found on the person or the presence of trafficking equipment (digital scales, baggies, ledgers). Fines for trafficking range between $500 and $10,000 depending on the actual net amount of marijuana.
"I don't think it's going to change anything (in the amount of charges we see)," Jones said. "I only know that marijuana use is still common in Kentucky, and I don't believe it's going to slow down any."
With the nearest dispensaries just over 50 miles away in Anna and Marion, Illinois, Laird has his doubts about people driving that far to score legal pot.
"Pretty much anything anybody's going to bring in already exists here," he said. "Most people are not going to drive to Carbondale, or 30 minutes or an hour away potentially, to buy marijuana to come back into a state where it's illegal whenever they could get the same stuff here, potentially cheaper."
For now, local law enforcement will continue to watch the situation develop.
"Speculation is not a real good basis to start making alterations to your operations. There may be minimal change that does or has to take place outside of what we're already doing," Carter said. "I think we can have a much different conversation four to six months down the road."