Thursday, May 05, 2011

'Compromise' medical marijuana bill fails in the House

By Jamey Dunn

A rewrite of a bill that would legalize medical marijuana and the support of a Republican legislative leader were not enough for the plan to get the needed support in the Illinois House today.

Rep. Lou Lang, the sponsor of House Bill 30, has repeatedly said that up to a hundred of his fellow House members support the proposal privately, but he says no one who was sitting on the fence voted in support of his bill.

“I wouldn’t say anything went wrong. I would simply say that people dug their heels in and decided to vote in what they felt was a safe way politically for themselves,” said Lang, a Skokie Democrat.

Lang backed a different bill that passed in the Senate but failed on two separate House votes during the closing days of last legislative session. That measure would have allowed licensed patients to grow their own plants. The revamped version of the bill would instead allow for the creation of 59 nonprofit dispensaries — one per Senate district — to supply marijuana. Patients would be allowed to buy 2.5 ounces of cannabis every 14 days and would not be allowed to have more than that amount at any given time. The bill stepped up the criminal penalties for those who illegally sold medical pot. Unlike the previous legislation, the new incarnation has a specific list of illnesses that would be eligible for possible treatment with marijuana. Patients would have to be referred by their doctors to the Department of Public Health, which would make the final call on who would be licensed to purchase cannabis.

Lang’s compromised version would also allow employers and landlords to set their own policies regarding the potential drug use of their tenants or employees. Lang said he listened to the floor debate from last session and tried to address some of the concerns voiced. “What we did not change is the core of the bill. … The core of this bill is making sick people feel better.”

He said that some of the 15 states that have legalized the use of marijuana for medical treatment have had problems. However he said his bill is “model piece of legislation for this country.” The District of Columbia has legalized medical marijuana, as well. The legislation would sunset in three years, so lawmakers would have to approve it again if they decided that they wanted to continue the policy. "Let's try for 3 years what 16 other states have tried," Lang said.

Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, said considering the deep budget cuts that state agencies are facing, she cannot justify asking the Department of Public Health to administer the program. She said they department is struggling to keep up with its current responsibilities.

Bellock said that legislators would be violating their oaths of office if they voted to allow something in the state that is considered illegal by the federal government. She said if supporters want to see a change, they must first work to change the federal law.

“I don’t think because the federal government has failed to research something that provides relief to people…we should hide our heads under the sand and ignore the facts,” Lang said.

Other opponents said that allowing patients access to marijuana would mean helping those who seek to use the drug recreationally.

“It’s an absolute unacceptable proposal. … Giving someone this much marijuana and believing it will not create problems is absolutely unacceptable,” said Rep. Jim Sacia, a Pecatonica Republican, He pointed to problems other states have had controlling access to the drug. “The great state of Montana — ‘big sky’ country  — is starting to refer to itself as ‘big high’ country because they cannot control the runaway problem with medical marijuana.”

The proposal did find a new Republican ally in House Minority Leader Tom Cross. The former prosecutor said it was a difficult choice he made after much deliberation. “A number of people on my side of the aisle do not support this bill, and I respect that.”

The bill got 53 ‘yes’ votes today. It needs 60 to pass. Lang said some supporters switched their votes to ‘no’ or ‘present’ when they saw the measure would fail. “That 53 is really 58,” he said after the vote. Lang said that he plans to keep pushing the issue and held his legislation so it can come up for another vote. The deadline to get the bill voted out of the House is next week; however, there is a possibility for an extension as well as some procedural shortcuts to get around the deadline. “I have plenty of time. We’re going to be here until the end of May. If I have a chance to pass it, even if it’s on May 31, then I will do so.”

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