How the medical marijuana debate is lighting up in Illinois

    Don’t book that flight from Chicago to Amsterdam this winter just yet; medical marijuana may be on its way. Illinois, in a joint effort with the Obama administration, could very well be the next state to hash out a plan to legalize medicinal cannabis. Recent legislation and a new federal stance on the drug have made possible a whole new way of healing.

    The United States Justice Department announced last week that they will stop prosecuting those who use marijuana for medicinal purposes, as long as the users comply with local laws. In a sharp departure from the Bush administration’s stance on marijuana, United States Attorney General Eric Holder said, “It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana.”

    Although medical marijuana isn’t yet legalized in Illinois, legislation in the Illinois State Senate regarding the issue has passed. SB 1381, The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, passed through the upper house of the Illinois legislature last May. But it wasn’t easy.

    According to the bill, a patient with a debilitating medical condition, as diagnosed by a physician, can be issued a registry identification card by the Department of Public Health which would allow them to have no more than seven dried cannabis plants and two ounces of dried usable cannabis. After a roll call vote that followed nearly an hour of debate in the Senate, it was reported that the gallery erupted in applause when the bill passed by a narrow 30-28-1 margin.

    The Senate may have lit up with elation, but the Illinois House of Representatives hasn’t been as vocal. Representative Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said in an interview that, “If every legislator who told me we should pass this bill actually voted for it, we’d pass it tomorrow [...] but we have too many legislators who don’t have the courage of their convictions.” Essentially, many of the legislators who compose the heavily liberal-leaning House have privately stated that they want to legalize medicinal marijuana, but they are afraid to state the same in public.

    In a state where 68 percent of people support legalizing medical marijuana and both the governor and his Democratic primary opponent are in favor of such a bill, it’s puzzling that the state legislature hasn’t been as supportive. Marijuana seems financially lucrative as well, as demonstrated by California, whose medical marijuana industry raked in $2 billion a year from sales and $100 million in taxes. Despite these reasons, though, support for legalization is far from uniform.

    Some law enforcement and medical groups are wary of the new bill. The Illinois State Medical Society, for example, is concerned about the side effects of using marijuana medicinally, and so they want to see more research done before supporting such a law. Law enforcement agencies, understandably, are concerned that increased illegal drug trafficking is an almost inevitable component to any new legalization efforts.

    Of course, the overarching reason behind the House’s inertia is purely political. Because the primary elections are coming up in February, don’t expect any work to be done on this bill until after winter; many politicians don’t want such a controversial piece of legislation to be a central theme in their primary races. Primaries are especially crucial in the Chicago area, where the seeming inevitability of a Democratic win means the primary is the race that actually matters.

    If the bill does pass through the House, Mary Jane won’t be waiting on you hand and foot. Strict laws will be enforced that mimic Colorado’s system of obtaining permits in order to access medical marijuana. It’s important to note, however, that only 47 out the 13,102 Colorado citizens who applied for identification cards to buy or grow marijuana for medicinal use were denied or had their permits revoked. The bill also has a sunset law, a powerful legal check that will force legislators to reconsider the law in three years, in case its use gets out of hand.

    While we may have to wait until after the primary elections, Illinois seems close to becoming the 14th state to legalize medical marijuana. So those of you with chronic illnesses that are in dire need of this new bill, you might just be in luck. The rest of you who might have a slightly different definition of “chronic illness,” your luck is probably going to get better, too.


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