Illinois medical marijuana issue heats up

February 09, 2005

Mary Massingale, State Journal-Register

As a state lawmaker pushes his proposal to legalize medical-use marijuana, a former drug-policy adviser to President Bush is touring Illinois lecturing against the practice.

The conflict reached a head this week, when Rep. Larry McKeon, D-Chicago, challenged Dr. Andrea Barthwell to a public debate about medical marijuana. Barthwell declined the challenge.

'I have no need to engage in street theater,' she said.

McKeon charged that Barthwell's seminars appear to be a smear campaign against his proposal.

The lawmaker - who is living with AIDS - said House Bill 407 attempts to improve the quality of life for terminally ill patients struggling with the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy and other treatments.

'This is about dealing with health problems that traditional medications have failed at,' McKeon said.

The proposal would allow individuals with a debilitating medical condition or their caretakers to own up to 12 cannabis plants and 21/2 ounces of usable cannabis. Individuals would be registered confiden- tially with the Illinois Department of Human Services and receive an identification card exempting them from arrest, prosecution or penalty.

The measure also allows for the creation of nonprofit organizations to grow the limited amount of marijuana plants for registered patients.

Law enforcement officials and anti-drug advocates charge that legalizing the plant would lead to increased marijuana use. Federal law prohibits possession of the plant, but the U.S. Supreme Court will rule this year on whether federal officials can prosecute individuals who use medical marijuana.

Ten states allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

McKeon sponsored a similar proposal a year ago that allowed six cannabis plants and 1 ounce of usable cannabis. That measure was banished to a subcommittee of the House Health Care Availability and Access Committee. This year, McKeon's legislation is slated for the House Human Services Committee.

'I want to move it out of committee to the House floor and then hold it on the House floor until we've had a reasonable amount of time to do the education and outreach to get further feedback,' McKeon said.

Barthwell said she already is educating the public, as she travels the state presenting the Illinois Marijuana Lectures. Barthwell initiated the free, parent-aimed series last month with lectures in Peoria, Bloomington and Decatur, and continues this week with stops in Alton, Belleville and Mount Vernon.

'A crude plant is definitely not a medicine,' Barthwell said. 'A surgeon doesn't come to a patient recovering from surgery and give them a pipe of opium - you give them a derivative.'

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana for medical use. A 1978 Illinois law allows participants in federally approved research projects to use medical marijuana, but that law never has been implemented.

Law enforcement officials also object to a provision of HB407 allowing local and state officers to be fired for pointing federal officials toward a registered medical marijuana user.

'That, to us, is pretty Draconian,' said Laimutis Nargelenas of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

A former Los Angeles police officer, McKeon said he is willing to sit down with law enforcement groups to come up with a compromise.

'This is not a crime bill,' McKeon said. 'This is a health-care bill.'

Mary Massingale can be reached at 782-6882 or

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