Public Safety

Thinking about buying legal pot in Illinois? Iowa authorities say don't bring it back here

Authorities fear Illinois law will mean more impaired drivers on Iowa roads

FILE PHOTO: Marijuana plants are displayed for sale at Canna Pi medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle, Washington, Nov
FILE PHOTO: Marijuana plants are displayed for sale at Canna Pi medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle, Washington, November 27, 2012. REUTERS/Anthony Bolante/File Photo

As Illinois prepares to welcome legal marijuana along with the New Year, Iowa officials say they’re concerned they’ll see an increase here in impaired driving and marijuana arrests.

“That’s really the biggest concern is impaired drivers,” said Iowa State Patrol Trooper Dan Loussaert.

“It’s primarily a public safety concern,” he added. “Smoking marijuana or consuming marijuana products impairs judgment and decision making and that can be dangerous, especially when someone is getting behind the wheel of a car. Then, they’re not only endangering themselves, but every other driver on the road as well.”

Illinois’ law legalizing recreational marijuana goes into effect Wednesday. Iowa law permits medical marijuana for qualified patients, but allows cannabis products only with a very low level of THC, the compound that produces a high.

“I expect we’ll see a number of individuals venturing over to Illinois and bringing illegal substances back,” said Iowa State Patrol Public Information Officer Sgt. Alex Dinkla. “We saw a lot of that — people driving to Colorado and purchasing product and bringing it back — when Colorado legalized marijuana, and I’m sure we’ll see that again with Illinois.”

Scott County Sheriff Timothy Lane said he shares similar concerns there on the state line, but also worries the new law could lead to an increase in illicit activity.

“Although we do not yet know the totality of the consequences of Illinois’ new marijuana law, I do have concerns for the areas like Scott County that border Illinois,” he said in an email to The Gazette. “There have been spikes in the black market marijuana business in other locations of the country where they have already legalized recreational marijuana. This causes the black market and the legalized businesses to compete (and puts) the legalized businesses at a disadvantage because of the high tax.”


Lane said his department’s special operations unit is tasked with investigating drug crimes with a focus on going after the suppliers — a task he said would be difficult when Illinois government steps into the role of supplier.

Despite these concerns, law enforcement agencies in towns and counties along the Iowa-Illinois border mostly say they are not planning to beef up enforcement unless they see a need.

“We do not plan on any special projects targeting marijuana from Illinois,” said Dubuque police Chief Mark Dalsing. “We also have a joint City-County-State Drug Task Force, and they are not planning any special enforcement, either.”

For now, Dalsing said his department is relying on people in their areas to use good judgment.

“The biggest thing we hope for is a well-educated public if they choose to purchase marijuana in Illinois,” he said. “We hope people will do their research and understand that while they can legally buy it in Illinois, the product will be illegal once they cross the border. Even if it is obtained legally in Illinois or any other state, it cannot be possessed in Iowa.”

Still, the Clinton Police Department said it is organizing its resources, along with other agencies in the area, to combat an influx in marijuana should they see one.

“The Clinton Police Department has all the tools in place with dedicated patrol officers, targeted enforcement teams, and narcotics task force officers, and have partnered with Illinois and a narcotic detection K-9 to combat any increase in drug related incidents within our city,” the department said in an email to The Gazette.

“Like possession of marijuana, we expect driving under the influence of marijuana to increase and will be watchful for the signs of impairment,” the department added.

In Iowa, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, and possession of even a small amount can lead to jail time and hefty fines.


The fact is, it is not yet clear what kind of effect the Illinois law could have in Iowa. But authorities say they have to be ready to handle anything that could develop.

“It is unknown if the number of arrests will increase, but we will not make exceptions for marijuana possession in Scott County even if it was legally purchased in Illinois,” Sheriff Lane said. “We will make necessary adjustments in our enforcement efforts but will not be conducting checkpoints with random searches so that those who are not suspected of any wrong doing are not inconvenienced.”

When it comes to determining if a driver is impaired, most law enforcement officers rely on a series of field sobriety tests, as well as cues such as red and glassy eyes, the smell of marijuana or visible products or paraphernalia.

And though field sobriety tests can effectively determine if a driver is impaired, when it comes to drugs, the tests cannot tell an officer what substance the driver is on.

That’s why some companies have started developing a breath analyzing tool that could identify some drugs in a person’s system. Seeing these devices as possible tools that could benefit officers, some agencies are considering their potential. However, Iowa Drug Recognition Expert State Coordinator with the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau Todd Olmstead said that science is not yet been proven accurate enough to be admissible in court cases.

“We’re always looking at any kind of technology that can help officers detect and combat impaired driving,” Olmstead said. “We have been watching the development of these breath-analyzing devices … (but) we are not yet comfortable with the technology.”

Though Olmstead said the Iowa Department of Public Safety will continue to monitor new technology, state authorities are not yet prepared to invest in such devices.

“And there are a few reasons for that,” he said. “First, drugs work completely differently with the systems of the body. They metabolize differently, some have half-lives, and they leave the body at different rates, plus there are so many different kinds of drugs … that it would be very difficult to make a device that can detect them all accurately.


“Alcohol on the other hand is predictable. We have done so many studies and so much research on how alcohol interacts with the body that we know exactly what happens once it’s ingested. And that’s why alcohol breathalyzers are widely trusted. But we don’t yet feel like the technology for detecting drugs has caught up with the sheer volume of drugs that are out there.”

A state trooper for 27 years and a drug recognition expert for 19, Olmstead said the most widely accepted method for determining what drugs a person might be on is a detailed examination that can be administered only by a drug recognition expert.

Training for that is intensive program that takes about a month to complete. The process for determining the type of drug includes repeated measurement of a suspect’s vital signs, a breath analysis test to rule out alcohol, interviews with the driver and the arresting officer, and checking the driver’s eyes, pupil reactions, ability to focus and balance. The test, he said, is extensive — taking 45 minutes to an hour — and boasts an 80 percent accuracy rate.

It’s a method state authorities will continue to use until the new technology is acceptable, Olmstead said.

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