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Medical Marijuana Bill Touted as Country's Tightest: Illinois to Legalize Medical Marijuana

Rep Lou Lang speaks at a press conference on his medical marijuana bill.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

After voting to reject medical marijuana legislation three times in previous years, the Illinois House approved a bill in April. Sponsor Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat; worked to tighten the bill, which proponents call the most strictly regulated medical marijuana program in the country. “This bill is a very carefully drafted bill,” Gov. Pat Quinn said when he signed the legislation. He did not openly support the bill as it moved through the legislature but said he would keep an open mind if it reached his desk. “Our law enforcement will be involved, our Department of Public Health, our Department of Agriculture. And the reason I’m signing the bill is because it is so tightly and properly drafted.” The Senate, which had already voted in favor of a medical marijuana bill in 2009, approved Senate Bill 1 in May. 

The new law, which will go into effect on January 1, creates a four-year pilot program legalizing medical marijuana from 2014 through 2018. Patients must be at least 18 years old to apply for a medical marijuana card through the Illinois Department of Public Health and must 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 approved their use of the drug, 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.

Successful applicants will be allowed 2.5 ounces of marijuana per a two-week period, unless a doctor certifies to the state a patient might need more. Each registered patient’s purchase will be entered into a database, which will be monitored to prevent a patient or caregiver from obtaining more than the approved quota.

Growing, selling and distributing medical marijuana will only be allowed by personnel in facilities approved and administered by the state and built away from schools and day care centers. Potential employees would have to be at least 21 years old and would be subject to state and federal background checks and fingerprinting. The law calls for 22 growing centers, one in each state police district, with 60 dispensary centers across the state. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation will license dispensaries while the Illinois Department of Agriculture oversees growers. 

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

Lang says he spent years trying to get the bill passed in Illinois because of stories he hears from the patients who are turning to an illegal solution for their pain. “Are we really going to be a state where we’re going to allow a 74-year-old granny with colon cancer to have to search for a remedy for her pain and her nausea? I don’t think that’s the kind of state we want to be,” he says. Lang says the drug should be an option for patients who know have to rely on powerful pain killers such as oxycodone, which can leave patients dazed, unresponsive and ultimately addicted. “Those medications, which are designed to help them feel better, actually ruined their lives.”

Senate sponsor Alton Democratic Sen. William Haine, a former prosecutor, says the program is “a way to achieve … compassionate relief consistent with the law,” while creating a system that will deter abuse. “Many of these people are dying,” he says of patients who would be eligible for the program. Haine says they are forced to take medication with severe or adverse side effects. “They shouldn’t be relegated to this.”

Opponents argue that allowing patients access to marijuana would mean helping those who seek to use the drug recreationally. “It’s an absolute unacceptable proposal. … Giving someone this much marijuana and believing it will not create problems is absolutely unacceptable,” says Rep. Jim Sacia, a Pecatonica Republican, He points to problems other states have had controlling access to the drug. “The great state of Montana — ‘big sky’ country  — is starting to refer to itself as ‘big high’ country because they cannot control the runaway problem with medical marijuana.” They say the law sends the wrong message about marijuana to children and young people who might use it recreationally. “The law’s a teacher. The students, the children, [will] think it’s OK,” says Ralph Rivera of the Illinois Family Institute.

“For every touching story,” Lebanon Republican Rep. Kyle McCarter says, “there are a thousand times more parents that will never be relieved from the pain” of losing a child to addiction. McCarter’s daughter, Amber, died from a drug overdose in 2007. She was 21 years old. 

Those opposed to the pilot program say that the state should not be moving to legalize a drug that is banned at the federal level. But Lang says that growers and sellers who follow the rules in Illinois run little risk of getting arrested by the feds. He says that when the federal government has intervened in other states, it was when growers or sellers were “breaking state law,” “selling product out the back door,” or when the “grow sites are way larger than they need to be.”

Lang says that it is not his intent to legalize cannabis for recreational users, who he says will smoke regardless of the law. “We know teenagers are going to smoke marijuana whether we pass this bill or not,” he says. Washington and Colorado have both legalized marijuana for recreational use. Lang says that there some in Illinois who support such a move, but he has no intention of sponsoring legislation to do so. 

Army veteran Jim Champion, who has been advocating for the new law, says that the new law is a template for other states looking for a way to tightly regulate medical cannabis. “They’re looking at Illinois and saying, ‘That is the right way to conduct a legitimate medical cannabis program,’ and it makes me proud. Illinois gets dissed on a whole lot, but I’m proud to stand here today to say that this isn’t a Cheech and Chong bill. We’re an actual model for the rest of the United States,” Champion, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 25 years ago, said when Quinn signed the bill. Champion says he is proud of his service in the Army, but he says, “I have always been ashamed that I was criminalized by the actions that I was forced to take for my pain relief.”

Sandy Champion, Jim’s wife, says that at first she was opposed to him using the drug, until she saw how much it helped relieve his pain. She is her husband’s caretaker and also obtains marijuana for his treatment. “When I go out to the streets to get this medicine, I risk my life, I risk my career future and I risk getting him bad product because any of us know that there can be some chemicals put in this stuff and it can be really bad for them,” she says. “So this bill is going to help me to be able to go into a dispensary legally, walk in and buy it with no fear.”

Illinois Issues, December 2013

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