Pubdate: Thu, 28 Apr 2011
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2011 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Todd Wilson, Tribune reporter
Bookmark: (Illinois)


Tough New Bill, Surprise Political Alliance Boost Chances

SPRINGFIELD - A stricter set of rules and a surprise political 
alliance are helping build momentum for a long-thwarted effort to 
legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Illinois.

Some lawmakers are looking to make cannabis available for people 
seeking relief from symptoms of maladies that include multiple 
sclerosis, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

To pick up support, they must allay fears by opponents concerned that 
the measure is the first step toward decriminalizing marijuana and 
worried that Illinois will end up like California, where pot is 
easily available to anyone with a doctor's note and complaints about 
headaches or anxiety.

In Illinois, doses would be dispensed from a limited number of highly 
regulated not-for-profits, rather than drugstores. Penalties 
including potential prison time would discourage attempts to turn a 
medical prescription into dime bags on the street.

In January, the issue fell four votes shy during a lame-duck session 
where lawmakers approved such controversial measures as a major 
income-tax increase, civil unions for same-sex couples and a death 
penalty abolition.

This time, House Republican Leader Tom Cross has dropped his 
opposition. He came on board after being approached by several 
constituents who pressed him to allow marijuana use for "the 
worst-of-the-worst medical conditions," a spokeswoman said.

Sponsoring Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, who has championed the issue for 
three years, said he thinks he can finally pass a medical marijuana 
bill out of the House. The Senate approved a less restrictive version 
last year.

Whatever the final form, an Illinois law can't come too soon for 
residents who now use medical marijuana illegally. Julie Falco said 
she's been using cannabis since 2004 to manage symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Falco said she felt she had no other choice because prescription 
drugs left her feeling lethargic and depressed and came with side 
effects such as hearing loss.

"I was contemplating taking my own life," said Falco, who lives on 
the Far North Side. "I didn't have any hope."

Scientists and physicians say medical research has shown scant 
evidence that marijuana is a safe and effective treatment for many of 
the afflictions the Illinois bill would cover.

A handful of uses in the bill -- like pain suffered by people with 
AIDS and cancer -- are supported by some solid scientific evidence. 
But none meets the standards, such as large, well-designed clinical 
trials, required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 
approving new drugs.

Fifteen states, including Michigan, have legalized medical marijuana. 
The sponsors of Illinois' bill are trying to make it the most 
restrictive in the nation.

Those with a prescription would not be allowed to grow their own 
marijuana but would have to buy it from a state-licensed dispensary. 
The bill would limit the number of outlets to 59 -- one per Senate district.

The latest version would legalize medical marijuana for three years, 
then lawmakers would review how it went. Democratic Sen. Bill Haine, 
a former state's attorney in Madison County, said the new safeguards 
should help the legislation gain support.

"Many people just flat don't accept that marijuana can do any good, 
but it's a natural substance that can be good, just as many 
prescription drugs are good for some uses and not for others," Haine said.

For Cross, the House GOP leader from Oswego, supporting the measure 
represents a change from January, when he voted against the idea.

Cross, who has a child with diabetes, sponsored a law that ensures 
researchers could work with embryonic stem cells in Illinois.

"I've seen him evolve on this thing," said Rep. Angelo "Skip" 
Saviano, R-Elmwood Park. "It fits his philosophy on not limiting 
tools to the medical community to treat these diseases."

Saviano has long supported legalizing marijuana for medical use. He 
watched his father die of cancer in 2001 after suffering side effects 
of chemotherapy. Saviano said he believed that marijuana could have 
helped reduce his father's nausea and increase his appetite at a time 
when he lost a lot of weight.

Supporters can't exhale yet. The lame-duck lawmakers are no longer in 
office and the measure needs to pass the House, Senate and be signed 
by Gov. Pat Quinn if it's to become law.

Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said this is not an issue Cross 
or Republican leadership will "twist arms" on to get support. Durkin, 
a former prosecutor, voted "no" in January but said he is keeping an 
open mind on the new version.

A law has been on the books since the late 1970s allowing doctors to 
prescribe marijuana in pill or plant form to treat glaucoma, the side 
effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer patients or 
other procedures deemed medical necessities. But the physician must 
get authorization from the Department of Human Services and written 
approval from the state police.

A state human services spokeswoman and a state medical society 
representative say they're not aware that any doctor has ever asked 
permission to prescribe marijuana in Illinois.

Lang, the House sponsor, said he's aware of the existing law but 
argues his proposal is a tighter and more workable measure.

"What we have done is take the best ideas on the topic from America 
and in Illinois during debate to gauge the tolerance of colleagues 
and make the best and tightest bill in the country," Lang said. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake