Illinois congress debates legalizing medicinal cannabis

By Sean Stillmaker

Julie Falco has lived with multiple sclerosis for 30 years. She has suffered severe pain, depression and at one point even contemplated suicide. Her doctors prescribed an assortment of medication, but none of them helped ease her struggle and function normally until she started using medical cannabis.

“[Medical cannabis] helped bring all that pain down to a manageable level so I can get through a day and live a better life,” Falco said.

Medical cannabis is an herbal drug from the Cannabis plant. The drug is also known as marijuana, and it’s illegal.

Falco, 43, is one of many severely ill who use the illegal drug for medicinal reasons.

So far, 13 states have legalized medicinal cannabis, and Illinois lawmakers are debating on whether or not Illinois should too.

On March 4, the Illinois medical cannabis bill, HB 2514, passed the Human Services Committee with a 4-to-3 vote. This is the first time ever a medical cannabis bill has passed in a house committee. It is now on the house floor for debate.

“I look at this not as a bill about marijuana or drug use, I look at this as a bill about health care,” said Rep. Lou Lang (16th – Skokie), the bill’s chief sponsor.

The Illinois bill is strictly limited to help the severely ill with diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and others.

Lang received 231 phone calls, faxes and e-mails in support of the bill and one message of opposition three days after the committee passed the bill, he said.

Medical cannabis bills have been gaining longer life spans in the Illinois legislature lately. In 2007, a medical cannabis bill was on the senate floor for debate, but voted down, 22-29.

Four senators did not vote, and another four voted present. If those eight votes would have been in favor of the bill, it would have passed 30-29. The bill’s sponsor was Sen. John Cullerton (6th-Chicago), he is now the senate president.

Currently, a senate medical cannabis companion bill, SB 1381, is in the senate subcommittee of special issues for debate.

“[The bill] allows people to access marijuana without going to the dark side and getting it,” said Sen. Bill Haine, the senate bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s a legal way to get it that avoids going to some corrupt dope dealer to buy, which many people are doing now to alleviate their pain.”

Falco began using medical cannabis in February 2004. Due to multiple sclerosis, Falco’s immune system is overactive and attacks itself.

“The pharmaceuticals that were recommended I take for my symptoms weren’t helping and were creating other side effects,” she said. “I soon got to a point where I didn’t know what the MS symptoms were and what the side effects were.”

Medical cannabis helps regulate her immune system. After using cannabis she immediately noticed pain relief, “The difference was night and day,” she said.

Her method of medical cannabis intake is baking it into brownies and cookies. Unlike other severely ill patients, she has a safe and reliable source for cannabis.

According to the bill, a patient can have an “adequate supply” of seven plants and two ounces of dried, usable cannabis. This is subject to change if passed because the Illinois Department of Public Health will determine an adequate supply.

Unlike any other medical cannabis law, the Illinois bill puts a three-year sunset on the law, which means the law becomes void after three years and has to be voted on again to be reinstated.

“This will be the tightest regulation in the nation,” Haine said.

The toughest opposition the bill is facing is from law enforcement, said Dan Bernath, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-medical cannabis lobbyist group.

“Law enforcement has concerns that this medical use doesn’t become an avenue for a stealth legalization,” Sen. Haine said.

Haine was a 14-year Madison county state’s attorney; he has profound respect for law enforcement and has worked with them to include their perspectives on the bill. The bill has already been amended several times he said.

“The only problem we have in Illinois with the law we presently have is where do we obtain the marijuana for those individuals that want to go through this experiment,” said Laimutis Nargelenas, Deputy Director of the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs.

Illinois passed a medical marijuana law in 1978 to be administered by the Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse that then became the Department of Human Services, but implementation never went into effect, said Melaney Arnold, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The Department of Public Health’s biggest concern with the medical cannabis bill is for fiscal reasons.

“The legislation does not account for a startup cost,” Arnold said.

The money for the program will come from fees for the participating patients and it can be raised to, “zero out the cost,” Sen. Haine said. “We’re talking about 2,000 people statewide.”

The other concern the department has is that if the bill is passed it will have an estimated five months to create rules and guidelines for administering medical cannabis, Arnold said. This process is estimated to take between nine and 12 months, she said.

Lawmakers remain hopeful the bill will gain support and the problems with the legislation can be resolved.

“The idea that someone could use marijuana in a carefully controlled way, in an appropriate way, under doctor supervision to get relief from the symptoms they have would be a godsend,” Rep. Lang said.