Medical marijuana argument makes little headway in Illinois

January 10, 2006

Chad Morelli, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

In Southern Illinois, the medical marijuana debate is just getting started. Only a handful of local residents apparently even know the names of Rep. Larry McKeon (D-Chicago) and Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), the two Illinois state representatives who are strong supporters of medical marijuana legislation. Even at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where hundreds of students support the legalization of the drug, groups that lobby for medical marijuana laws have been slow to push the issue.

Michael Steelman, a 27-year-old Edwardsville resident and a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Medical Marijuana Laws, believes there is a bright future for medical marijuana. He also believes that future might still be more than a decade away in Illinois.

"I don't think anyone would accuse this area of being too progressive," Steelman said. "Most people won't even talk about the issue around here. They are terrified of a plant."

The benefits of medical marijuana are well documented, according to the Illinois Nurses Association, a group with more than 6,000 members. The nurses have endorsed a number of efforts to get medical marijuana legalized, pointing to patients who use the drug to cope with nausea and chronic pain.

The Illinois Nurses Association supports therapeutic marijuana use for patients who suffer from AIDS, cancer, and other debilitating diseases. The nurses say that marijuana can help patients stay on their medications, boost their appetite, and help to ease their pain.

There are now 11 states that have legalized medical marijuana, and representatives from NORML believe that Illinois is lagging behind the national trend.

NORML says officials from Southern Illinois are generally not sympathetic to the issue. The organization ranks members of Congress in their efforts to support the reform of marijuana laws. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Belleville), who represents the 12th district, received a ranking of negative 3, the lowest possible. So did John Shimkus (R-Collinsville), who represents the 19th district.

Up north, U.S. Reps. Danny Davis (D-Chicago) was given a rating of 11. Janice Schakowsky (D-Park Ridge) took the highest possible rating of 16. Both legislators have spoken out in their support of medical marijuana.

At the state level, McKeon, a respected Democrat in the House of Representatives, stood up in front of his colleagues last year to present House Resolution 398. The bill would have created a commission to study the benefits of legalizing medical marijuana. Instead, the legislation never made it out of committee and therefore was never discussed by the House.

In the state Senate, Cullerton found a similar fate for his Senate Resolution 256, a bill that also sought to create a commission. The legislation went to the Senate Rules Committee, where it stalled in May of 2005. Again, the bill never came up for discussion in front of a full Senate.

"You hear stuff like that, and it's extremely discouraging," Steelman said. "Our representatives in Congress think it's too dangerous of an issue to even touch. Medical marijuana is not dangerous."

Across the Mississippi River, NORML of St. Louis is putting its lobbying efforts into full gear. The group holds monthly meetings, launches letter-writing campaigns to representatives at the local, state, and federal level, and puts on an annual parade to raise awareness.

The group even has a "Hempmobile" to spread the message of reform. During the first Saturday of May, NORML sponsors the "Million Marijuana March to the Arch." The event helps bring in new members and sparks many lobbying efforts for the reform of marijuana laws.

Dave Kelewae, a recovering marijuana addict, believes that reform is needed. He just doesn't know when that reform will arrive.

"Something needs to happen, because the sooner we start admitting that marijuana is out there, the better off we are going to be," Kelewae said. "We can't keep ignoring the issues of medical marijuana and the reform of laws. We need to wake up."

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