With Illinois' statewide legalization of recreational marijuana use and multiple dispensaries planned for the southern part of the state in the coming year, west Kentucky legal officials expect little impact when it comes to prosecutions.

In Kentucky, possession of marijuana is technically a Class B misdemeanor, but the penalty is less than a standard Class B, maxing out at 45 days in jail and a $250 fine.

In McCracken County, a standard plea agreement to simple possession usually carries a $25 fine plus court costs, and no time behind bars.

County Attorney Sam Clymer said he considers that punishment to be commensurate with the nature of the offense, though other area counties may take a less lenient approach.

"I really do believe that the rate of use of marijuana is so much more prevalent than anybody would ever believe," Clymer said.

In determining his approach in prosecuting marijuana possession, Clymer said he takes into account the tide of public opinion swinging in favor of legalization, the recent legislative history in Kentucky of reducing the penalties for possession and even the racially charged history of criminalizing cannabis.

"I do think (legalization) is gonna happen," Clymer said of Kentucky.

"I think a lot of that has to do with the sentiment of the people."

Clymer's office last year prosecuted about 480 misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, not counting about 170 others that either rose to the level of a felony offense or accompanied other felony charges and were handled in circuit court.

Clymer said when it comes to legal availability in a neighboring state, he doesn't expect a significant number of nonsmokers to take up the habit, nor does he expect many of those who already toke to spend the extra time and money driving to buy the heavily taxed and still fairly restricted weed.

"I see, at this point, the people that want to recreationally use marijuana are going to recreationally use marijuana," Clymer said.

In 1992, possession of marijuana was classified as a Class A misdemeanor in Kentucky, while the current law lessening the charge took effect in 2011. Trafficking in the drug still carries higher misdemeanor or even felony charges, depending on the amount in question or a suspect's history of dealing.

Defense attorney Emily Roark, of the Bryant Law Center, said she does expect some cannabis users to potentially misunderstand the legality and stressed that, despite the drug being legal in Illinois, it's still illegal to possess in Kentucky.

"They buy it legally and they may have a little bit left in their car … if they're caught for speeding or license plate not illuminated or DUI, or whatever, I think there will be a lot more arrests."

Roark said she already deals with clients who may just be driving through the area on the interstate, but if they get pulled over and they have any marijuana in their car, however legal their purchase of it, they still end up cited.

"I would be really surprised if we don't pick up more cases," she said.

Attorney Teris Swanson, who also works in the Bryant Law Center, agreed.

"If you go to Illinois, you smoke a joint legally in your car … if your car still smells like marijuana when you come back through (the state line), you're going to get a DUI."

Swanson said there's no reliable blood test based on THC content to determine whether a driver would have been impaired at the time of a traffic stop, and that THC remains in the bloodstream long after any psychoactive effect has worn off.

"There's no bright line rule like there is with alcohol," she said, adding it's often up to prosecutors to determine whether to proceed with DUI charges in the absence of other evidence of impairment.

Roark said despite that possible uptick, she also doesn't expect the availability of legal weed in Illinois to increase or decrease the use of it locally. She said she expected people to "get it the easiest they can get it, the cheapest they can get it and the closest they can get it. I would be surprised if they go all the way to Illinois to get it."

Clymer said taking a lenient approach to prosecution isn't just about public opinion or disagreeing with the Nixon Administration's sweeping drug laws in the 1970s.

"The collateral consequences are my big concern," he said, noting that often the punishment, or even just the conviction, for marijuana possession can have significant professional, personal and social consequences for a person.

As for the stigma associated with being a "drug" user and the idea that cannabis can serve as a stepping stone to harder substances, Clymer pointed a finger at Kentucky's prized industry: Bourbon.

"The gateway drug is alcohol."

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