Illinois Legislature takes new look at medical marijuana

February 20, 2006

Philip Ewing, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The national debate over medical marijuana is lighting up in Illinois. Under a bill that could be debated in Springfield as early as today, patients would be allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana - which advocates say helps pain sufferers, but opponents say would open the door to legalized pot.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, was passed 6-5 last week by a Senate committee. That is the first time such a bill has advanced that far in the Legislature.

The bill would allow patients with prescriptions to grow up to 12 marijuana plants or possess up to about 2 grams of it. Cullerton said those allowances would not usher in fully legal pot.

"We're not trying to decriminalize or legalize marijuana," Cullerton said. "Our goal is to make sure the people who have access to this marijuana are the ones suffering from diseases, and that it's not abused by anybody else."

Several groups, including the Illinois State Police, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Sheriffs' Association, all oppose the bill. Even medical use is too much, they say, because pot is a harmful, addictive drug.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, also opposes the bill, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

"It's a very frightening situation," said Judy Kreamer, president of Educating Voices Inc., an anti-drug organization based in Naperville, Ill. Children would be the ones most hurt by medical marijuana, she said. "We don't want to be giving kids the message that this is safe, that this is medicine."

Eleven states have laws that enable people to use marijuana if it's been recommended by a doctor. Other state legislatures are considering such bills.

The Missouri Legislature has considered the issue several times, but an enabling bill has never been passed.

Kreamer said the temptation was too great for people to sell their excess marijuana, which "devastates" the lives of people who use it. Compared with the small number of people who'd be helped by medical marijuana, it isn't worth the risk, she said. She said Illinois would become like California, which has thousands of marijuana "dispensaries" and where, she said, "addicts" run rampant.

But Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said California's laws weren't a good example - they're "chaotic," he said. Every other state, as well as the Illinois proposal, sets stringent limits on the amount of marijuana a person can possess and who can possess it.

State and local governments nationwide are liberalizing the way they deal with marijuana, St. Pierre said, because federal laws are too punitive."Politicians need not fear that this is one of those election-year bugaboos that's going to come back and haunt them about being 'soft on crime,'" St. Pierre said. "Medical marijuana has never lost when it's been put to a popular vote."

In a similar debate five years ago, the Legislature approved a measure championed by then-Sen. Evelyn Bowles, D-Edwardsville, that would have approved a feasibility study to determine whether Illinois could develop a cash-crop market around hemp.

Hemp is a hallucinogenic cousin to marijuana, but the fibrous plant also can be used to make rope and textiles. Supporters believed a controlled crop could open up new industrial markets for Illinois farmers. But then-Gov. George Ryan vetoed the bill in 2001 after anti-drug opponents said it would send mixed messages to children to have state-sanctioned crops of hemp.

The medical marijuana bill is SB2568.

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