By Meredith Colias
Medical marijuana legislation could be one vote away from the governor's desk.
A Senate committee approved House Bill 1 on a 10-5 vote today. Its sponsor, Sen. William Haine, an Alton Democrat and former state's attorney, told committee members that the bill had been written with strict restrictions to keep the cultivation and distribution of marijuana under the oversight of the state.
“It is not an opening to legalization,” he said. The House approved the bill last month.
Gov. Pat Quinn has spoken positively about the concept of medical marijuana but has refused to take a stance on HB 1.
The bill would create a four-year pilot program only for patients diagnosed with 33 diseases specified in the bill. They and their caregivers would have to pass background checks, and patients would only be eligible to receive a state-approved medical marijuana carrying card if the state believes they have an established relationship with the doctor who recommends it for them. Patients would have to be 18 or older and would be limited to buying 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. The Department of Public Health would oversee a database to keep track to reduce fraud and make sure that patients are not buying more medical marijuana than their limit. If they were caught violating the state’s restrictions, they would have their licenses permanently revoked.
During today's committee hearing, the issue stirred the emotions of many lawmakers, who related the pain and burden of friends and family members suffering from illnesses like terminal cancer and multiple sclerosis.
"We all have anecdotal stories,” Haine said. Because the federal government classifies marijuana as a narcotic, he said ill people have to resort to breaking the law to relieve their daily pain by purchasing marijuana on the streets.
"These are people who are law-abiding. Where do they get it?"
Other members of the committee expressed concerns that legalizing medical marijuana would have unintended consequences beyond what was written in the bill.
Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said he was dissuaded from supporting it after seeing how marijuana became a gateway drug for young people eventually addicted to heroin.
“We need to consider the unintended consequences,” Murphy said. “There is a potential downside to this, and it’s big, and it’s scary.”
Republican Leader Christine Radogno told Haine she doubted that if medical marijuana were legalized, it would strictly stay in the hands of its intended patients.
“It will get out on the streets,” she said.
She told Haine she thought the bill’s scope was too narrow for it to work.
“I don’t think it addresses the bigger picture. I really think the question is if we should legalize it.”
Anthony Grootens, chief of police in Jacksonville, said that field sobriety tests used by police would not detect impairment from marijuana.
“We’ll be dead in the water trying to enforce this,” he said.
Haine said after the committee that police would still be able to tell whether a driver was impaired, and those with a medical marijuana card would have to submit to the test or they would lose their card.
Patients testifying before the committee shared stories about their treatment for some of 33 diseases specified by the bill. They said marijuana had eased the burden for those who were gravely ill.
Jim Champion, an MS patient said, "It's a highly exclusive club you do not want to be a member of.”
Haine said he hopes to call the bill for a floor vote next week. The Senate approved medical marijuana legislation in 2009, but HB 1 is a different proposal, and the makeup of the chamber has changed since then.