Friday, May 17, 2013

Medical marijuana legislation
is headed to the governor

By Meredith Colias

After years of just saying no, the legislature has sent a restrictive medical marijuana bill to the governor’s desk.

The measure passed the Senate on a 35-21 vote as the legislature approaches the final weeks of its spring session session. The House approved it earlier. Gov. Pat Quinn has said previously he is “open-minded” to the legislation but has not firmly confirmed whether he would sign it into law. If he does, the law would go into effect starting in 2014. Supporters are touting this measure as one of the strictest in the nation, hoping to avoid the fallout in other states such as Colorado and California that have looser medical marijuana guidelines.

The Illinois bill is a four-year pilot program designed as a compassionate measure to allow those with 33 chronic or deeply debilitating illnesses specifically outlined, including multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and cancer, to obtain marijuana to relieve their pain. They would be authorized for one year at a time. “Many of these people are dying,” the bill’s sponsor, Alton Democrat Sen. William Haine said, and are forced to take medication with severe or adverse side effects. “They shouldn’t be relegated to this.”

Patients and their caregivers would have to pass background checks by the state police and would have their eligibility to buy and possess marijuana permanently revoked if they violate the bill’s guidelines. The state will require each patient to have a satisfactory “bona fide” relationship with the physician prescribing their medical marijuana as a way to sort out healthier or younger individuals hoping to obtain the drug for recreational use.

Patients approved by their doctors can buy 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. The state will keep electronic records to ensure they cannot exceed their allowed quota. Marijuana smoking in public would not allowed, and any marijuana transported by patients from state-approved dispensaries has to be kept in a sealed container. Haine said the costs for maintaining the program would be paid by fees established by the Department of Public Health, Department of Agriculture and state police for authorizing possession cards, regulating growing centers and distributors and conducting background checks. “The users that are in this system have to pay [for] it,” Haine said.

Opponents have expressed concerns that the bill will lead to unintended consequences, such as encouraging more recreational use and drug addiction among teenagers and others. “For every touching story,” Lebanon Republican Kyle McCarter said, “there are a thousand times more parents that will never be relived from the pain” of losing a child to addiction." The bill would equate marijuana to “all these basic drugs that we trust are safe,” McCarter said.

Chicago Democrat Sen. Mattie Hunter, who has worked as a drug treatment counselor, said she could not support a bill that could encourage more addiction. “All they did was put ‘medical’ in front of marijuana. It’s still a drug,” she said. “I am not going to have this matter on my hands.” As a former state’s attorney, Haine is judged to bring some credibility to the issue, but opponents cited the lack of support from law enforcement organizations.

They also expressed concerns that those approved to use it could be allowed to drive under the influence. That is “absolutely not the case,” Haine said. If they cannot pass a sobriety test by police, they are subject to the law, and “their card is revoked.”

The Senate last passed another medical marijuana bill in 2009, but it failed in the House. Aurora Democrat Sen. Linda Holmes, who has MS, said she understands the importance of providing a better quality of life. “We don’t want them to suffer,” she said. For its sponsor, the bill is “a way to achieve … compassionate relief consistent with the law,” Haine said, while creating “a system that avoids abuse.”


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