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Illinois Libertarians Sue Over Medical Marijuana Campaign Finance Ban

Rep. Lou Lang
Brian Mackey
Rep. Lou Lang shortly after the Illinois House approved medical marijuana in 2013. Now the law's campaign finance ban is being challenged in court; Lang says he'd prefer that provision wasn't in the law anyway.

A federal lawsuit is seeking to overturn Illinois’ ban on campaign contributions from medical marijuana companies.

  The case was brought last week by two Libertarian Party political candidates: Claire Ball of Addison, who says she's running for comptroller, and Scott Schluter of Marion, who says he's running for state representative. They say they favor legalization of drugs, and that companies that agree with them should be able to support their campaigns.

When Illinois legislators approved the medical marijuana pilot program in 2013, they boasted of passing the strictest medical marijuana law in the country. Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie, was a lead sponsor of the bill. He says the contribution ban, which applies to cannabis growers and dispensaries, was among a number of provisions meant to appease “conservative" and “hesitant" colleagues. Lang says one such provision required that patients be fingerprinted; another limited the number of diseases with which someone could qualify to use cannabis.

“I would prefer this not be in the bill,” Lang said in a telephone interview. “Not because I’m looking for campaign donations from people in the marijuana industry, but because I’m not sure that it’s great public policy to pick out one particular industry or two particular industries, and single them out for a clouding of their free speech rights, and not do it to all (industries)."

Lang says there’s been talk over the years about prohibiting donations from all regulated industries, such as insurance, horse racing, gambling, utilities. Those represent some of the biggest political donors in Illinois. “I’m not sure I’m a fan of that,” Lang says, “but at least in those areas, you’re talking about a more generalized approach."

The specificity of the Illinois law piqued the interest of Benjamin Barr, a lawyer with the Pillar of Law Institute in Washington, D.C. He’s one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ball and Schluter.

"It’s strikingly bizarre to me for the state of Illinois to take this blatant and open of a position," Barr said in a telephone interview. “Usually, campaign finance (prohibition), when it has problems, applies heavy-handedly to one group. But they’re not named out in the law, because that’s just jumping up and down and signaling, 'Look, we’re going after this particular organization or this set of speakers.'"

Barr says he’s not aware of a similar ban in any of the other roughly two-dozen states experimenting with medical marijuana.

The legal challenge comes in a year in which Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed further campaign finance restrictions. His “Turnaround Agenda” calls for preventing labor unions that represent teachers and other government employees from being able to make contributions, and he says trial lawyers should be prohibited from donating to judges.

Barr said unions are often grouped with corporations as “bugaboos” to be pursued. “I’m slightly right-wing in my political orientation, but I fully want to hear what unions have to say in the political process,” he said.

“It’s easy to get upset about money in politics, but money is the fuel through which you’re able to be heard,” Barr said. "And for many average Americans, the best way for their voice to be heard is to take that $50, send it to the Sierra Club, send it to the NRA — whatever their group of choice is — and associate. So by pooling their resources, they’re able to amplify their voice."

The U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has repeatedly ruled that spending on campaigns is essentially political speech, and thus protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Barr says it’s particularly important that his clients, who favor the legalization of drugs, be able to seek support from like-minded businesses: "They're third parties. They have new ideas. They're disrupting the status quo. And what's most important to them right now? To be able to associate and to be able to get funding, so that they're able to speak to people in Illinois, and they're able to share their message."

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, which usually defends state laws in court, would only say it's reviewing the case. It has until December 10 to respond to the lawsuit.

The complaint in Ball v. Madigan.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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