Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Medical marijuana bill passes Senate

By Hilary Russell
Photo by Hilary Russell
The board read 28 eyes, 30 nays and 1 present when the bill was called for a vote. As Senators watched the neon numbers go up, down and up again, the room began to fill with chanting. At 29 votes, just one shy of the number needed to pass, one Senator was visibly worried. Then, at the last second, the votes changed to 30. The bill had passed.

Applause and gales of laughter broke out once the votes were confirmed.

Sen. Bill Haine, an Alton Democrat, sponsored SB 1381, which would allow terminally ill patients to enroll in a three-year pilot program and permit the use of marijuana without fear of criminal punishment.

 "This is major step and a victory for common sense,” Haine said.

Haine’s bill would allow an individual to get a prescription from his or her primary care physician for a 60-day supply of marijuana, or two ounces of dried cannabis and three flowering plants. See the background here.

The Illinois Department of Public Health would oversee the program and ultimately determine how many plants and dried ounces constituted a 60-day supply. The bill also designates that a primary caregiver, who is registered with the department, to grow and or purchase the marijuana for the patient.

The plant’s medical effects versus its benefits are greatly debated because it is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is classified federally as an illegal drug.

But for patients who have chronic or terminal conditions, the drug, supporters say, has been a lifesaver because it helps to ease nausea and increase appetite.

Some lawmakers in support of the bill spoke on a personal note.

Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat with multiple sclerosis, said passing this bill was the right action to take. “We are talking about people here that are not looking to abuse a drug,” she said. “To sit here and say that this drug has the potential to be abused, therefore, we should not be voting in favor of this bill … well, then go home and empty out your medicine cabinet because all your pain medications and all your sleep medications have the potential to be abused.”

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, moved the room to silence as he spoke about a recent visit with his mother. Raoul said she suffers from a variety of ailments and, as a result, her doctors have prescribed her multiple drugs to treat one issue while prescribing others to offset side effects. “This is a bill about compassion for those who are suffering,” Raoul said. Having recently lost his father, Raoul noted, “pharmaceuticals had no answer for the pain he had to go through. So we can make this a political issue, but this is about compassion.”

Opponents fear if the bill becomes law, it would pave the way for drug addiction and open a can of worms the state doesn’t have the time or resources to deal with. Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, opposed the bill, saying he thought there were too many loopholes. One of his main concerns is that the bill does not require patients or their caregivers to have background checks.

“The bill would allow people to grow and possess cannabis. Those folks are not subject to a background check,” Righter said. “This bill does not require law enforcement to be involved in the administration program at all, and I think that’s a fatal flaw.”

Haine said every dispensary would be required to go through a background check, but the patients are the ones responsible for the caretaker. “It’s a bit offensive to demand everyone go through a background check,” Haine said. “If the patient is not qualified, the doctor will not sign the recommendation. We delineate the diseases [that qualify] and demand extensive corroboration from the doctor.” He added that if the privilege were abused, the prescribing doctor’s license would be on the line, too.

Now the bill moves to the House, where Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, will sponsor it. But with only four days left before the spring session is scheduled to end, Haine said he suspects the bill would wait to be called until the annual fall session or even later.

Lang said: “I’m going to try to move it as far through the House system as I can and as quickly as I can and do a head count. This morning, I did not have enough votes to pass the bill.”

He added that now there are 30 senators who voted for this bill, which means there are 60 representatives for those senators. “So maybe now they’ll feel that they have some political cover and will feel OK to vote for the bill.”

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