By Terry Dean
The River Forest Police Department and village government are considering issuing local ordinance tickets to low-level marijuana users and funneling those offenders into treatment and education programs.
It's a move that coincides with a trend in Oak Park and the city of Chicago to rethink how to prosecute minor drug offenses. Craig Rutz, deputy chief of the River Forest police, said the village is currently reviewing a recommendation to the River Forest village board that could be taken up sometime this fall. Rutz added that the village is coordinating their effort with Oak Park so that they're both "on the same page."
Oak Park police and a parent group, IMPACT, are backing a recommendation to the Oak Park village board, scheduled to be considered sometime in September, as reported by Wednesday Journal last week. At the state and county level, elected officials are also pushing for treatment and fines for petty marijuana users.
Rutz said that, personally, he has never been in favor of assessing criminal charges to casual marijuana users but that he and other officers have followed the directives of lawmakers. Officers in River Forest don't spend a lot of time on low-level cases but rather on larger drug sales, the deputy chief explained.
"I think it has always been a misdirected effort to treat casual usage as a criminal offense," Rutz said. "Generally, officers seem to view it as a waste of time and resources in putting people in jail for minor crimes.
"There are a lot of negatives associated with marijuana, don't get me wrong," Rutz added, "but the issue is really that the war on drugs has not worked and putting people in prison for ridiculous things and giving them a criminal record when this is really an educational issue.
"If anything, it puts them in contact with people who might introduce them to harder drugs," Rutz said.
The parent and community group IMPACT is also working with officials in River Forest, said George Thompson, the group's law enforcement subcommittee chair, adding that the group's focus remains on teens who use marijuana, tobacco and alcohol.
But Thompson said the group supports the "therapeutic versus punitive" approach elected officials are now coming around to. The group, which was formed in response to the anti-substance-abuse campaign that began last year by mostly OPRF parents, is trying to change local laws to reflect this new mindset.
Thompson said the group will launch a public awareness campaign once those changes take effect, an effort that will involve educating kids and parents on the new law. But Thompson added that a change in culture is what's most needed.
"There's always been this view that if you — and neither I nor the group supports this — but that if you make marijuana legal in some way, that more kids will use it and so on, when in truth, because the penalties are so severe, most people don't report it because they don't want their neighbor to get in trouble or to have their neighbor mad at them," Thompson said. "If you go to a therapeutic approach, you [can] actually help your neighbor and it's not going to hurt them."