Illinois medical cannabis bill gains momentum

February 19, 2006

Jane Huh, State Journal-Register (IL)

Julie Falco came to Springfield last week for the third year in a row to persuade lawmakers to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

With her, she brought a Tupperware container with marijuana-laced brownies and “popped them right in the room.” That drew reactions – “most of them were grins or something’s up” looks, she said - from people in the hearing room.

“I would not have been able to testify in front of the Senate (committee) if I did not have my cannabis because I get very sensitive to really loud atmosphere, a lot of people, a lot of movement,” said Falco, a Chicago resident who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago. “It’s just too much on my nervous system.”

With her doctor’s written endorsement, Falco eats three 1-inch marijuana brownie squares a day to treat her condition, which causes her legs to lock up and shake. On Wednesday, she said, the brownies “made it tolerable to be in an arena like that.”

Under legislation that passed out of the Senate committee to which Falco spoke, Illinoisans could legally grow and use marijuana to treat terminal illnesses and other debilitating health conditions.

Although the bill, Senate Bill 2568, was moved to the full Senate by a vote of only 6-5, the committee’s action signaled a growing push in Illinois to legalize use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The medical cannabis bill is making its third appearance in the General Assembly and is as close as it has ever been to becoming a legislative reality. Previous bills have not made it through the committee stage.

Earlier this year, Rhode Island became the 11th state to legalize marijuana for patients with terminal illnesses and other debilitating conditions, such as AIDS, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. New Mexico and Connecticut reportedly are debating the issue this year.

“There’s more support than people realize,” said Dr. Christopher Fichtner, a medical adviser to Illinois Drug Education and

Legislative Reform and a former mental health director for the state Department of Human Services. Among those backing the bill is the Illinois Nurses Association, he said.

If the proposal passes the full Senate and the House and is signed by the governor, it would allow patients with a doctor’s prescription to grow as many as 12 marijuana plants each. A patient could possess no more than 2 1/2 ounces of the drug in its usable form at any one time.

Critics say the legislation is unnecessary because Illinois has a 1978 statute that allows patients to apply for federal research projects in which marijuana would be provided. But no one has applied to undertake such research, according to Tom Green, spokesman for the Department of Human Services.

Opponents of the bill also say Marinol, a prescription drug that contains tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, an active cannabis ingredient, is available for patients. Aside from that, the Federal Drug Administration has not labeled marijuana as medicine.

“We should hold it to the same standards as any other medicine, and we’re simply not ready in terms of research,” said Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, who voted against the bill.

Falco and other medical cannabis advocates said drugs such as Marinol do not work for everybody. People respond differently to how marijuana is consumed, she said.

“Smoking it, for me, didn’t really work as did eating it,” Falco said.

Laimutis Nargelenas, deputy director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said the legislative action to legalize medical marijuana is moving too fast and sends mixed messages to the public about the dangers of controlled substances.

“We’re a compassionate community, but at the same time we have a job to do right now on the war on drugs, and marijuana is an illegal drug,” Nargelenas said. “We have now gone so far to take meth and most cold medicines behind the counter, and yet to turn around and legalize marijuana, it doesn’t make sense.”

Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems also is against the bill because it would be “very difficult to regulate and control who has the marijuana,” said executive director Anita Bedell.

Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, the legislation’s sponsor, said the bill still needs work to “assure the other senators that the law won’t be abused” by caregivers who would be responsible for dispensing the drug to patients unable to take it independently.

“When people realize that cannabis will be used as medicine, I think we can gain support,” he said.

Falco said she uses only the word “cannabis” in the ongoing debate because “marijuana” is a loaded word that keeps the issue bogged down in controversy.

“Medical patients do not get high,” she said. “It’s a pain reliever. But that’s where people go ... to the old stereotypes about what cannabis is.”

And although she has never been arrested or confronted by law enforcement, Falco said she fears getting that knock on the door.

“Multiple sclerosis is a stress-related disease, and I can’t even imagine myself sitting a jail cell without the cannabis,” she said. “I’m doing this because I know there are thousands of others using it for medicinal reasons. We have illnesses we deal with every day ... we don’t want to be worrying about getting arrested.”

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Jane Huh can be reached at 782-6883 or jane.huh@sj-r.com.



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