Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel was not allowed to speak at a meeting of state legislators April 18 to voice his opposition to legalizing recreational cannabis. | William Camargo/Staff Photographer

Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel expressed anger and frustration last week when he was barred from testifying before a combined Illinois House Appropriations Public Safety Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee meeting regarding a pair of bills seeking legalization of small amounts of cannabis for recreational use that have been introduced in the state’s General Assembly.

Weitzel said he spent several hour waiting to speak to the committee on behalf of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police to voice opposition to the bills, which would make it legal for anyone over the age of 21 to possess up to 28 grams of cannabis. 

Senate Bill 316, which was introduced in March by state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), also allows manufacture and sale of cannabis by licensed businesses and allows for the state to tax sales.

At the committee meeting in Chicago on April 18, legislators interviewed two people, one of whom was Barbara Brohl, director of the Colorado Department of Revenue. Recreational marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2014.

At about 3 p.m. when legislators were done questioning the two, Weitzel said he stood up to be recognized but was told the committee wouldn’t be talking to anyone else.

“An announcement was made by the chair that no one would be testifying except for who they said could speak,” said Weitzel, who responded by submitting his testimony in writing.

In his statement on behalf of the police chiefs’ association, Weitzel enumerated what he believed to be the dangers of cannabis use, saying it was “often seen as a transition drug: from social drinking to smoking marijuana to snorting cocaine.”

Weitzel cited statistics indicating cannabis use has increased “substantially” in Colorado since that state legalized recreational use and that cannabis-related traffic deaths have increased by 62 percent since 2013.

“It is not the job of government to legalize damaging substances, causing people to perceive them as something normal or even habitual,” Weitzel wrote in his statement on behalf of the chief’s association. “A government must protect the health and stability of its citizens.”

Weitzel said he was told the April 18 was simply a fact-finding session and that opponents of the legislation would get a chance to testify at hearings to be held at a later date in Springfield. 

Still, Weitzel said, shutting out a law enforcement representative from testifying at the April 18 hearing displayed a lack of respect for the opinion of law enforcement.

“This is just another example of how our state legislators have very little respect for law enforcement leadership throughout the state of Illinois.” Weitzel said in a press release.  “I was there representing … over 200 law enforcement executives and not allowed to give our testimony.”

As he left the Michael Bilandic Building in downtown Chicago, Weitzel said he was followed by four proponents of the legalization effort who upbraided him for his opposition, following him all the way to his car.

“I stopped and told them, ‘That’s my position. You have your own position.'”

Senate Bill 316 and its twin in the House, HB 2353, remain in committee. It’s unclear when either would be presented for votes.