Medical marijuana legislation put on hold in Illinois

March 02, 2004

Mary Massingale, Lincoln Courier

SPRINGFIELD - Is it medical marijuana or 'medical-excuse' marijuana?

The legislative debate will have to wait - and most likely after the November elections.

A House committee Tuesday deferred voting on a proposal calling for the legalization of possession and use of marijuana by Illinoisans diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition.

Instead, House Bill 4868 was assigned to an unnamed subcommittee of the Health Care Availability and Access Committee.

Rep. Larry McKeon, D-Chicago, said he would continue to educate committee members on the medical use of marijuana.

'There are people in there just trembling at the thought that some of their constituents might think they're pro-crime or pro-drug,' McKeon said. 'My reaction to that is, 'Get a life.' This is about your brother, your sister, your family member suffering the debilitating consequences of chemotherapy and other treatments.'

HB4868 would allow individuals or their caretakers to own up to six cannabis plants and 1 ounce of usable cannabis. Individuals would be registered with the Illinois Department of Human Services and receive an identification card exempting them from arrest, prosecution or penalty.

Advocates of medical marijuana claim the practice improves the quality of life of terminally ill patients by squelching adverse side effects of chemotherapy and other treatments. Meanwhile, anti-drug advocates and law enforcement officials say legalizing the practice would lead to increased marijuana use.

As an 18-year survivor of AIDS, Ronald Shaw of Chicago said the 10-year, daily marijuana-smoking habit has prolonged his life. A hit from a joint quickly staves off the debilitating nausea brought on by his daily medications, he said.

'I'm not looking for a cheap high,' said Shaw, 38. 'I'm looking for a way to eat, and I'm looking for the most effective way to curb my nausea.'

However, an adviser to President Bush said that just because something feels good doesn't make it good medicine.

'We never let the electorate decide what medicine is - we should not go down that pathway,' said Dr. Andrea Barthwell, deputy director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy. 'A drug cannot be called medicine just because of a successful political campaign.'

The federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana, and federal law prohibits the possession and use of the plant. A 1978 Illinois law allows participants in federally approved research projects to use medical marijuana, but that law has never been implemented. However, eight states allow use of the plant for medical purposes - California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Colorado, Maine and Nevada.

Greg Sullivan of the Illinois Sheriffs' Association said one ounce of cannabis makes about 73 joints, making the proposal 'an enforcement nightmare.'

Barthwell also noted that one of the effective components of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, has been approved for sale in the prescription drug Marinol - a fact that marijuana advocates often ignore, she said.

'They are playing on the electorate's compassion for the sick and dying,' said Barthwell.

McKeon said medical marijuana should be available for those individuals who don't respond to Marinol or other anti-nausea drugs.

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