As Illinois passes marijuana laws, a national dialogue becomes more open

    To treat pain from his rheumatoid arthritis, Weinberg sophomore Tom Key began researching medical marijuana as an alternative medicine when he moved to Michigan. In December 2012, he became a medical marijuana patient, and eventually, a consultant – one who advises patients on strains of cannabis to purchase and methods of cannabis use – at a Michigan dispensary.

    However, the recent legalization of medical marijuana in Illinois means a different set of regulations for Key.

    “The bill [in Illinois] is highly restrictive in that it doesn’t allow people from other states to use their card, it has a very limited number of conditions and you can’t grow your own,” Key said. Because of the law’s restrictions, Key said he has to change his registration to Illinois, losing his Michigan registration.

    Illinois became the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana when Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act on Aug. 1, 2013. The law went into effect on Jan. 1, but the writing and implementation of the rules will slow progress, according to Lou Lang, the Democratic representative from Skokie and a sponsor of the legislation.

    “No one will have any product in their hand until at least [fall of 2014],” Lang said, citing the time spent on the regulatory process and licensing.

    The legislation refers to medical marijuana as an “alternative treatment for serious diseases causing chronic pain and debilitating conditions,” with a list of specific conditions including cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis. In order for a patient to receive up to 2.5 ounces of usable cannabis per two weeks, his or her patient must complete written certification “only in the course of a bona fide physician-patient relationship." Medical cannabis-dispensing organizations must be registered by the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

    In the absence of a federal program, state policies provide the basis for policy experiments for the rest of the country. Lang said that with the most controlled program in the country, Illinois is expected to set a positive precedent for states wanting to legalize medical marijuana.

    “Several legislators from other states have called me to ask about this process and about the legislation, so we may find other states adopting Illinois’ model on this and I think that would be great,” Lang said.

    Discrepancies between state laws demonstrate the complexity of the debate on legalization of medical marijuana. Legalization of medical marijuana in Illinois reflects a degree of increasingly open attitudes toward cannabis policy in the U.S., beginning with a discussion of the drug’s medical merits and often ending in a consideration of decriminalization for recreational use.

    For the first time, a clear majority - 58 percent of Americans, according to an Oct. 22, 2013 Gallup poll - support the legalization of marijuana. Legalization in Colorado and Washington in 2012 drew greater attention to similar policy movements and propelled activists throughout the country.

    “The 58 percent is a sizable jump,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a widely published author on cannabis and H. Guyford Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “There’s always a margin of error … but clearly support has been growing for a long time and is growing faster in the last three or so years than it was in the preceding fifteen.”

    Local jurisdictions have decriminalized marijuana in certain instances. In Evanston, a 2011 ordinance changed the policy for individuals in possession of marijuana, not packaged for sale, to receive a ticket rather than an arrest.

    Cmdr. Jay Parrott of the Evanston Police Department said for non-habitual offenders in possession of a small amount of marijuana, the policy “allows us to recognize there’s an easier way to process somebody and still hold them accountable for the violation.”

    From 2011 to 2012, the number of arrests for possession decreased 39 percent from 195 to 119 arrests, while ordinance violations increased from 108 to 147 tickets, according to Parrott.

    On the state level, Caulkins described policies in Illinois as “night and day different” from those in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California.

    “What those states did was write a quasi-legalization form of recreational use under the cover story of medical availability,” Caulkins explained.

    In the California law, Caulkins described how the legislation lists specific, debilitating conditions and ends with a “gigantic elastic clause.” As a result, “the vast majority of people in California getting recommendations have back pain or anxiety,” Caulkins said.

    In Illinois, the future of medical and recreational marijuana policy will depend on the success of the medical pilot program. The effectiveness of marijuana policies influences public opinion and political support for future initiatives.

    Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol Addiction Problems, said the organization is opposed to the legalization of marijuana for recreational and medical use.

    “Making marijuana more accessible and acceptable increases use and addiction,” Bedell said. “Young people already have more problems with alcohol and making another drug legal and available will also increase underage use and harm.”

    But the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is still looking to pass legalization, tax and regulation policies statewide. Because the medical bill just passed, it is not likely such legislation would be enacted in the near future, according to Ali Nagib, NORML assistant director, in a November meeting in Chicago.

    A 2013 Brookings Institution paper, “The New Politics of Marijuana Legalization: Why Opinion is Changing,” concluded the consensus backing many strict marijuana laws has eroded with demographic changes and widespread public marijuana use.

    Key, the consultant at a Michigan medical marijuana dispensary, described how one 83-year-old patient came into the clinic weekly, smoking marijuana instead of taking chemotherapy drugs.

    Some of her friends became regular users after seeing how marijuana helped her, although they were previously opposed to the idea.

    “As the medical benefits become realized, it’s becoming more accepted, “ Key explained.


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