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This is an NDIC product. National Drug Intelligence Center
Illinois Drug Threat Assessment
January 2001


Marijuana remains the most readily available and most abused drug in Illinois. (See Appendix for responses to the NDIC National Drug Threat Survey 2000.) Abuse by young people has increased dramatically since the early 1990s. Shipments of marijuana ranging from multikilogram to metric ton quantities are transported to Illinois from the Southwest Border area on a regular basis by Mexican DTOs. Chicago is both a major destination for Mexican-produced marijuana and a transshipment point to other areas in the Great Lakes Region and the Midwest. The rural areas of Illinois provide an adequate environment for the domestic cultivation of cannabis.


Marijuana remains the most widely available and abused drug in Illinois. Marijuana abuse spans a wide spectrum of age, racial, and socioeconomic groups. Marijuana abuse by young people increased dramatically since the early 1990s. Over the past 10 years, marijuana abuse by eighth-grade students tripled. In 1998, more than 21 percent of all eighth-grade students, 37 percent of all tenth-grade students, and nearly 42 percent of all twelfth-grade students in Illinois reported using marijuana in the past year. (See Chart 4.) Marijuana abuse by Illinois students varies demographically. Eighth graders outside Cook County show significantly lower rates of marijuana abuse than eighth graders in Cook County, although this difference becomes negligible when students reach the tenth and twelfth grades.

Chart 4. Percentage of Students using Marijuana in Past Year
Cook County vs. Other Counties, 1998

Chart showing percentage of students using marijuana in the past year comparing Cook County to other counties for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.
Cook      Other

Source: Illinois Department of Human Services, Youth Study on Substance Abuse: Comparing the 1995, 1997, and 1998 Results, Chestnut Health Systems, November 1999.

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The high levels of marijuana abuse by students have detrimental consequences for the educational system in Illinois. A 6-year study completed in 1999 may indicate a correlation between marijuana use and school performance. In that study, 49 students in one high school who either possessed or were under the influence of marijuana during the school day were monitored. All students involved had serious attendance problems, were significantly behind their peers in academic progress, and were characterized by their teachers as apathetic and unmotivated. Each of these students also had serious disciplinary problems at school and negatively influenced their peers.

Arrest statistics provide additional evidence that marijuana abuse has increased in Illinois. Marijuana arrests statewide have more than
doubled over the past 10 years. (See Chart 5.) The percentage of male arrestees testing positive for marijuana from Chicago also rose significantly from the early 1990s. Marijuana offenses have consistently accounted for 75 percent of drug arrests in rural Illinois counties since the 1970s.

Chart 5. Illinois Marijuana Arrests

Chart showing Illinois marijuana arrests for the years 1982 through 1999.

Source: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.   

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The high levels of marijuana abuse in Illinois are also confirmed in hospital ED mentions for marijuana over the past 10 years. CEWG reports show that marijuana abuse in Chicago continues to increase, evidenced by one of the nation's highest rates of marijuana ED mentions. (See Chart 6.) While ED mentions for marijuana rose 44 percent nationwide from 1988 to 1998, they increased over 300 percent in Chicago.

Chart 6. CEWG Chicago Marijuana Mentions per 100,000

Chart showing CEWG Chicago Emergency Department mentions rate per 100,000 population for the years 1993 through 1998.

Source: CEWG, Epidemiologic Trends in Drug Abuse, Advanced Report, December 1999.  


Marijuana is often used in association with other drugs. Law enforcement officials report an increase in the popularity of smoking blunts, a marijuana-packed cigar. Some users lace marijuana blunts with crack or PCP (phencyclidine).

A blunt is a cigar packed with marijuana. Users remove the tobacco on the inside of the cigar and replace it with marijuana in an attempt to disguise the smoking of marijuana in public.


Marijuana abuse results in economic costs to society. According to research funded through the Illinois Department of Human Services, the adverse economic impact of marijuana abuse is corroborated by a number of facts. Marijuana users have 55 percent more industrial accidents than nonusers, 85 percent more injuries at work, and 78 percent more absenteeism. Furthermore, drug users have medical costs that are 300 percent higher than nonusers, and they are five times more likely to file a claim under worker's compensation benefits.

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Marijuana is the most readily available drug in Illinois. Marijuana seizures by state and local law enforcement agencies have increased over the past 10 years. Seizures by federal law enforcement have also increased over the past 10 years. In FY1999, the FDSS reported 5,635 kilograms of marijuana seized in Illinois, up from 1,171 kilograms seized in FY1997 and 4,767 kilograms seized in FY1998.

Quantities ranging from multikilograms to metric tons are transported regularly to Illinois from the Southwest Border area. Through Operation Valkyrie, the Illinois State Police highway interdiction effort, officials seized more than 5,900 kilograms of marijuana in 1998 and more than 45,000 kilograms since 1990, an achievement unequaled among non-Southwest Border states.

Commercial-grade marijuana produced in Mexico is the most widely available type in Illinois. Mexican-produced marijuana is relatively inexpensive because of its low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content (average 3.3 percent). Domestically cultivated cannabis plants, particularly indoor grown cannabis, produce a highly potent, more marketable marijuana that is available at a higher price, but in much smaller quantities. Marijuana prices in Illinois have remained relatively constant over the past decade. (See Table 5.)

Table 5. Marijuana Prices, Chicago, 2000

Amount Commercial Grades Higher Grades
Gram $3-$5 $7$10
Ounce $50$75 $200$500
Pound $900$1,200 $2,500$4,000

Source: DEA Chicago Field Division, Trends in the Traffic 2d Quarter FY2000.

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While marijuana abuse is not normally tied directly to violent behavior, ADAM statistics for Chicago reveal that over 40 percent of males arrested for violent crimes in 1999 tested positive for marijuana.

Domestic cannabis growers are often heavily armed and commonly use booby traps and warning devices to protect their cultivation sites from law enforcement authorities and the public. The U.S. Forest Service reports that visitors to public lands may be endangered by the presence of cannabis cultivation sites, which routinely are booby-trapped with explosives, trip-wire firing devices, hanging fishhooks, and punji stakes buried around the cannabis plots. The number of weapons seized during cannabis eradication program operations nationwide more than doubled over the past decade.



Illinois provides an adequate environment for cannabis cultivation. Despite a limited growing season, the fertile soil and large, sparsely populated rural areas of Illinois attract cannabis growers. Cannabis is intermixed with corn and soybean crops, making it visible only from the air. In addition, horticultural techniques found on the Internet and in magazines are triggering an increase in the number of indoor cannabis grows. For example, the Alton Police Department reports that it seized plants from 8 to 10 indoor cannabis cultivation operations during 1999. The average indoor grow contained 25-50 plants, but some contained as many as 250 plants.

DEA has an aggressive Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program in Illinois, which consistently ranks among the top 10 states in the country in the number of plants and plots of cannabis that are eradicated each year. See Table 6 for the latest available seizure data.

Table 6. Cannabis Seizures, Illinois, 1998

Outdoor Operations
   Plots eradicated 278
   Cultivated plants eradicated 4,225
   Ditchweed plants eradicated* 1,350,571
Indoor Operations
   Grows seized 80
   Plants eradicated 3,310
   Total plants eradicated 1,358,106
   Number of arrests143
   Number of weapons seized 101

*Ditchweed is a term used to describe extremely low quality marijuana that grows wild in many parts of the United States. This type of marijuana is rarely harvested for use.

Source: DEA, 1998 Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program Report, March 1999.

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Mexican DTOs smuggle most of the marijuana in Illinois from Mexico through the Southwest Border area. In 1999, at least 20 OCDETF investigations involving large-scale marijuana shipments to Chicago from the Southwest Border were initiated nationwide. Seven of the fifteen largest marijuana seizures reported through El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) Operation Pipeline/Convoy data for 1999 were shipments destined for Illinois from Texas. These seizures totaled over 13,000 kilograms of marijuana. Operation Valkyrie, as well as other Operation Pipeline seizures, indicates that the Chicago area remains a major hub for the large-scale distribution of Mexican marijuana. 

The three largest seizures of marijuana reported nationwide through EPIC Pipeline/Convoy data in 1999 were shipments destined for Illinois from Texas. Two of these marijuana seizures (2,992 and 2,607 kilograms) were made in Greene County, Missouri. The third seizure (2,660 kilograms) was made in Cook County, Illinois.

Source: EPIC, Pipeline/Convoy Data 1999.

Mexican DTOs have traditionally transported bulk marijuana shipments concealed with legitimate goods in tractor-trailers into the Chicago area from the Southwest Border. A review of EPIC reports of 1999 seizures of marijuana shipments destined for Chicago reveal that shipments have been intermixed with legitimate goods ranging from furniture to ignition coils to polyvinyl chloride. "Shotgunning" of multiple shipments of smaller quantities of marijuana concealed in passenger cars is becoming more popular because it lessens the risk of losing very large shipments to law enforcement. According to USCS officials in Chicago, it is becoming more common for smaller shipments of marijuana to be smuggled across the Southwest Border and later consolidated into larger shipments destined for Chicago.

Authorities arrested eight Mexican nationals in connection with a drug ring that smuggled marijuana in bags of charcoal through Laredo to Chicago. USCS and DEA agents and local police seized more than 5,800 pounds (2,630 kilograms) of marijuana, estimated to be worth about $6 million, in Chicago and at an immigration checkpoint in Laredo. According to a USCS agent in Chicago, "In recent years, we've seen smaller loads of marijuana, between 30 and 300 pounds, cross the Southwest Border, which are then consolidated with other small loads on the U.S. side. This case is significant in that we had over 5,800 pounds of marijuana crossing the Southwest Border and heading nonstop to the West Side of Chicago."

Source: Associated Press, 12 August 2000.


Large shipments of marijuana from south Texas are transported into the Chicago area via overland carriers such as railcars, commercial buses, motor homes, recreational vehicles, and other private vehicles. Chicago is also a transshipment point for Mexican-produced marijuana destined for other areas within the state and throughout the region. Smaller quantities of marijuana are shipped into the state by mail and package delivery services.

Following a drug-detection canine alert, Illinois State Police seized 1,950 kilograms of marijuana discovered in an Illinois-licensed 1989 utility trailer being towed by an Oklahoma-licensed 1999 Mack tractor parked at a truck stop in Will County, Illinois. The marijuana bundles, wrapped in various types of tape, were commingled with a shipment of roofing paper and hay bales. Officers also seized $25,000 in cash. The marijuana was en route to Chicago, Illinois, from McAllen, Texas. The driver, a 42-year-old male resident of Odessa, Texas, was arrested.

Source: EPIC, Daily Summaries, 14 June 2000.


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The primary wholesalers of marijuana in Chicago are the same Mexican DTOs who supply most of the cocaine and Mexican heroin in the Chicago area. Mexican trafficking cells operating in the Chicago area are often composed of extended family members of associates or organization members in Mexico. These family connections and associations provide the means for DTOs in Mexico to establish small branches of their organizations, or cells, in the Chicago area to facilitate the wholesale distribution of marijuana. Numerous other groups with connections to these Mexican DTOs are responsible for wholesale marijuana distribution in Illinois. Marijuana is sold at the wholesale level in quantities ranging from several hundred kilograms to a metric ton.

Mexican criminal groups own and operate a variety of businesses to facilitate drug sales and other criminal activities. These businesses serve dual purposes. Businesses such as restaurants, bars, supermarkets, bakeries, and automobile detail shops provide opportunities for shipping and receiving drugs and currency along with legitimate supplies. In addition, automobile detail shops can be used to construct concealed compartments to hide drugs in cars and other vehicles. The second purpose of these businesses is to serve as fronts for laundering the proceeds of drug sales. Restaurants, bars, and other businesses that deal mainly in cash are particularly suited for laundering money.

Three Men Sentenced for Marijuana Possession

Three suburban Chicago men were sentenced on May 31, 2000, for marijuana possession. In 1998, police found over 180 kilograms of marijuana, scales, and packaging materials at their residence in Carol Stream, just west of Chicago. Investigators believe that the men were Mexican nationals preparing marijuana for delivery to Chicago-area street gangs for retail distribution. Although the men claimed to live in the house, police believe that they were laborers who lived in different places around the country and that they were paid approximately $250 per week for packaging the drugs.

Source: Chicago Tribune, 1 June 2000.

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Law enforcement agencies across the state report that gangs dominate the retail drug trade. These gangs survive financially through the distribution and sale of drugs. Street gangs typically sell marijuana and other drugs in low-income areas such as public housing projects in the Chicago area. African-American and Hispanic street gangs are the primary street-level distributors of marijuana. Gang members who sell drugs on the street corners are often teenagers or younger.

Street gangs are the major retailers of marijuana, but outlaw motorcycle gangs and ethnic criminal groups also distribute marijuana at the street level, usually within their own communities. Sales by these groups take place on street corners, from vehicles, in dope houses, in bars, and in other public places. Law enforcement officials across Illinois report that marijuana is available from a variety of sources at the retail level; it is packaged in small plastic bags and sold for $20 or more.

Gang Members Involved in Marijuana Network

Three Mexican nationals, brothers and leaders of the Ambrose street gang in Aurora, Illinois, were sentenced for their participation in a major marijuana distribution network. The brothers transported marijuana from Mexico and the southwestern United States to Aurora by courier. They conducted retail sales of the marijuana through members of the street gang; the gang also provided security and obtained weapons for the group. To further insulate themselves, the brothers used gang members to purchase money orders and to wire proceeds of their marijuana sales to Arizona and Mexico.

Source: Copley News Service, 2 July 2000.

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