Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Medical marijuana passes House after years of legislative efforts

By Meredith Colias

Patients with debilitating illnesses may soon be allowed to buy medical marijuana legally in Illinois.

After years of rejecting plans to legalize medical marijuana, the House narrowly approved House Bill 1 on a 61-57 vote today. The measure now advances to the Senate. If it passes that chamber, Gov. Pat Quinn said he would be “open minded” but would not commit to signing the bill.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said stricter restrictions in the current measure helped to persuade some representatives who had not voted for legalization in the past. “This is not about getting high,” Lang said. The measure was designed to “better provide health care to people who desperately need this product,” he said. Lang told the House his priority was to assist patients in chronic pain. “I know every single one of you has compassion in your heart,” he said. “This is the day to show it.”

The measure would implement a four-year pilot program legalizing medical marijuana from 2014 through 2018. Patients at least 18 years old applying for a medical marijuana card through the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) would have to prove they have one of 33 serious or chronic conditions specifically listed in the bill, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease or cancer. IDPH is authorized to add to the list in the future. Applicants must show they have an established relationship with their doctor who approves the use, and they would have to submit medical records for verification. Both patients and their caregivers, who must be 21 or older, would be subject to background checks. If a patient's or caregiver's card is revoked, he or she would not be allowed to reapply for a new one later.

The measure would allow patients 2.5 ounces of loose marijuana per a two-week period, unless a doctor certifies to the state a patient might need more. Each registered patient would have the purchase entered into a database, which would be monitored to prevent a patient or caregiver from obtaining more than the approved quota.

Growing, selling and distributing medical marijuana would only be done by personnel in facilities approved and administered by the state, built away from schools and day care centers. Potential employees would have to be at least 21 and would subject to state and federal background checks and fingerprinting. Twenty-two growing centers would be set up, one in each state police district, with 60 dispensary centers across the state. Dispensaries would be registered with the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, and growers would have with the register with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Past proposals from Lang would have allowed private individuals to grow marijuana on their own.

The measure also includes everyday restrictions. Marijuana smoking in public would not be allowed. Landlords would have the option to refuse to allow marijuana smoking, employers could punish employees coming to work under the influence and patients would still be subject to DUI laws if pulled over and tested by police during a traffic stop.

Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, said he was satisfied the bill was regulated “from seed to sale” and voted for it. Several supporters during the floor debate cited people they knew who could have benefited from access to medical marijuana.

 Rep. JoAnn Osmond, an Antioch Republican,  said with visible emotion that she changed her vote to yes because of a friend with cancer whom she did not allow to use marijuana once when he lived with her. “Sometimes I regret that because I know it might have helped him,” she said.

Opponents were concerned that legalizing medical marijuana would have unintended consequences. “Even if I vote no, I still have compassion. Every state that has implemented this has had problems,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican. Bost said marijuana could not be effectively legalized only for its intended medicinal usage. “Don’t try to piecemeal it like this,” he said. Others said the move was the first step in possible future efforts to legalize the drug for recreational use, as Washington and Colorado have done recently.

Lang said his only motivation was to aid people who are critically sick. “Some of these people are going to die. Why would we say to them, 'You can’t have a product your doctor wants you to have?'” As the bill advances to the Senate, Lang said he hoped it would have a “strong vote."

The Senate approved a medical marijuana bill in 2009, but the makeup of the chamber has changed since then.

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