Bill aims to legalize medical marijuana

By Paolo Cisneros

Members of the Illinois Senate Public Health Committee voted 6-4 last week in favor of a bill that would make Illinois the 13th state to legalize the usage of medical marijuana. The bill now goes to vote before the General Assembly.

Pending approval of the Illinois Legislature, the bill will prohibit the arrest and subsequent prosecution of subjects with “debilitating medical conditions” who use medicinal marijuana under the condition that they possess no more than eight marijuana plants and two and a half ounces of usable marijuana. The patient’s doctor would also be protected from prosecution.

The bill is co-sponsored by state Sens. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Angelo Saviano, R-River Grove, and was first filed by state Sen. Cullerton on Feb. 15.

“We’re very close to passing this bill in Illinois,” said Dan Bernath, assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization that works to reform marijuana laws nationwide. “There are seriously ill people who need this medicine. Unfortunately the law says they’re criminals if they use it.”

The Illinois Constitution stipulates that a bill must receive a majority vote in both the House and the Senate to become law, and proponents believe they are well on their way to making that happen.

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“Right now, we’re subjecting sick and dying people to arrests,” said Tom Angell, government relations director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “Everybody knows somebody with cancer or AIDS or multiple sclerosis. We don’t think they should be treated like criminals.”

This is not the first time legislators in Illinois have tried to legalize medicinal marijuana. A similar bill passed the Public Health Committee last year but fell short of the majority needed in the Senate.

Officials at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment on the legislation.

According to a press release posted on its Web site, “The scientific and medical communities have determined that smoked marijuana is a health danger, not a cure. There is no medical evidence that smoking marijuana helps patients.”

Bernath disagrees.

“We know that medical marijuana is effective at treating the nausea that chemotherapy patients experience in addition to being a very good painkiller for neuropathic pain,” he said.

A recent telephone poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc., funded by the Marijuana Policy Projects found that Illinois residents support the legalization of medicinal marijuana by a 68-27 percent margin.

Regardless, supporters of the bill realize the opposition is a powerful force.

Rep. Saviano said the bill’s biggest opponents are state law enforcement agencies who feel its passing might undermine their efforts and make it easier for people without illnesses to obtain the drug.

“They feel that the way it’s written, it might be too broad,” Saviano said. “We’re going to sit down with them to see if we can tighten it up. That’s the key to getting it passed, getting the law enforcement community behind it.”

State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, voted against the bill citing two major reasons for doing so.

“The first issue is the viability of marijuana as a medicine,” he said. “The second is, if you decide that you want to allow it as a medicine, how are you going to control it?”

The bill as written provides a number of loopholes that would allow recreational users to more easily obtain the drug, Righter said. He added that the agencies that will expected to enforce the law do not have the resources necessary for the job.

“The bill is a disaster,” he said.

Saviano expects the legislation to go before the Senate for a vote during the first week of April.