Illinois lawmakers lobbied to back marijuana plan

March 02, 2004

Scott Miller , Pantagraph

SPRINGFIELD -- For 20 years, state Rep. Larry McKeon, D-Chicago, has battled HIV and the nausea and pain stemming from its treatments.

For 18 years, Ronald Shaw of Chicago has fought AIDS.

Both say marijuana is a cure for the pain. On Tuesday they asked state lawmakers to support legislation that would allow the terminally ill to grow six marijuana plants and legally carry up to 1 ounce of marijuana.

A House committee heard testimony on the proposal, but members agreed the issue needs more study. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate, but its fate is unclear.

'All I'm asking is that you don't make me a criminal in order to keep myself eating and at a weight that I can maintain and allow me to keep taking the AIDS drugs that are keeping me alive,' Shaw told reporters at a Statehouse press conference.

Federal drug administrators and police agencies actively oppose the legislation, however.

'While there are no proven benefits to marijuana use, there are many short- and long-term risks associated with marijuana use,' said Dr. Andrea Barthwell of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. 'Even if smoking marijuana makes people feel better, that's not enough to call it a medicine.'

In addition, Barthwell said several drugs already do the job, including Marinol, a drug using some chemicals from marijuana while blocking some of the side effects.

McKeon, the legislation's sponsor, and Shaw both said such medicine doesn't work for everyone and may cause more problems.

'I take about 14 pills in the morning, three or four in the afternoon and another half dozen in the evening,' McKeon said, 'and after a while you get sick and tired, of being sick and tired, of being sick and tired, taking all of these medications that cause nausea, diarrhea, headache and other problems.'

In addition, Dr. Edward Lack, a Chicago physician with pancreatic cancer who favors medical use of marijuana, said all treatments have side affects. He said he gets marijuana through a college student.

'When you're worried about side effects, every anti-cancer drug kills the kidney, kills the lung, kills the liver,' Lack said. 'What are we talking about? These are people that are suffering and dying.'

Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriff's Association, said he fears such a law would be unenforceable and would increase the flow of the illegal drug.

'Let me give you a scenario if I could,' he said. 'I'm an 18-year-old who's been adjudicated, a juvenile delinquent. I can now be a caregiver, grow six plants and carry an ounce of marijuana with me. It is an enforcement nightmare.'

McKeon disagreed.

Strict supervision, strict limits on what's available and registration with the Department of Human Services will help law enforcement prevent abuse of the program, he said. 'This is not about expanding the availability of drugs on the street,' McKeon said.

Still, the proposal could not trump federal law, but supporters say local police carry out 99 percent of drug arrests, and the federal police only deal with much larger busts.

State Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Hinsdale, is against the proposal.

'It is not up to the electorate or the General Assembly to decide what is medicine,' she said. 'That should be left to the professionals.'

Nine states already have medical marijuana laws: California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado.

The legislation is House Bill 4868 and Senate Bill 2440.

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