Illinois hazy on medical marijuana legalization

By Hallie Zolkower-Kutz

Proponents of legalizing medical marijuana are urging Illinois House representatives to vote in favor of a medical cannabis bill that will be considered during the week of Dec. 3.

If it passes both houses of the General Assembly, State House Bill 30 would enact a three-year pilot program providing patients with serious medical conditions limited access to cannabis. It would be the most restrictive medical marijuana bill in the country, according to Morgan Fox, communication manager of the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the U.S. Only patients with debilitating conditions, such as HIV, AIDS, multiple sclerosis or cancer would be eligible for a prescription.

This is the fifth medical marijuana bill presented to the Illinois House in nine years, and for the last three years, the legislation has been one vote shy of passing, according to Maryann Loncar, a medical marijuana advocate and a member of Mother Earth Holistic Health, an Illinois nonprofit that supports patients’ rights. She said she thinks this year will be different.

“The difference here is that we have bipartisan support,” Loncar said. “We don’t want the FDA and the DEA going all crazy over our state. We want a strict system.”

Rep. Lou Lang (D-16th) planned to call the bill to a vote Nov. 28, but he postponed it because many activists worried the bill would not receive enough votes, according

to Loncar.

However, the bill’s many restrictions may help it pass, according to Amanda Reiman, a lecturer at the University of California at Berkley and a leader in cannabis research.

“Having a specific list of conditions makes the government feel in control,” Reiman said. “But I think there’s definitely a risk in passing [a bill] that is too restrictive because you don’t want to prevent access for individuals who need it, and you don’t want to create legislation that is not implementable.”

Although Reiman said she believes that the bill can be enacted in its current state, many are steadfastly opposed to it.

Rep. Jim Sacia (R-89th) said he will not support the bill because of his experience as a former FBI agent.

“I think it is a drug that is not controlled at all,” Sacia said. “Many folks will suddenly have issues that they think the best way to be resolved is by tokin’ on some weed. I think it’ll be badly abused.”

Sacia said he would only support the bill if the marijuana was distributed in pill form and regulated by the FDA.

Although many believe cannabis use can be problematic, Reiman said she has seen what marijuana can do for chronically ill patients.

“One of the wonderful things about cannabis is that it addresses not only the physical aspects of the disease or disorder, but also a lot of the mental health issues that go along with having [the disease],” Reiman said. “Individuals who would have been on four or five different medications are now able to reduce that to just cannabis.”

Irv Rosenfeld, a medical marijuana patient in Florida, supports the bill. Rosenfeld is one of four remaining members of the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program, a federal program started in 1976 that allows participants to use marijuana as an experimental treatment. Rosenfeld receives medical cannabis from the government to treat chronic bone tumors.

Rosenfeld said he used to take Dilaudid, a powerful opioid, to deal with his chronic pain but uses only cannabis now.

“I haven’t taken any opiates since 1990,” he said. “I used to have to take Dilaudid every day. Without [marijuana], I would be homebound and on disability.”

Chicagoan Julie Falco uses marijuana to medicate her  pain from multiple sclerosis. Falco previously took up to six medications per day to deal with pain, anxiety and depression caused by her disease, but said she now relies on marijuana and an occasional Tylenol with codeine to deal with her illness.

“I was lethargic and depressed, and in 2004 I was ready to commit suicide, until I tried cannabis,” Falco said. “Cannabis to me is much milder and gentler to my body and is more healing. It’s helped me profoundly since I started using it every day.”

Falco said she speaks openly in support of the issue because she knows the people who will benefit from the passage of this bill.

“This is not a political issue or a numbers game,” she said. “These are people’s lives.”