By Jamey Dunn
Illinois became the 19th state to legalize medical marijuana today as Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that proponents say are some of the strongest regulations of the drug in the nation.
House Bill 1 creates a four-year pilot program for medical cannabis in the state. The Illinois Department of Public Health will screen patients seeking medical marijuana permits. With the approval of their doctors, patients with one of 35 debilitating illnesses listed in the new law or their caregivers would be able to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every 14 days. The new law will take effect on January 1, 2014.
Growers would be licensed by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and only 22 permits will be issued — one for every state police district. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation will license 60 dispensary operations. Patients, caregivers, owners and employees of growing operations and dispensaries will all be required to pass background checks. Owners of growing operations or dispensaries will be banned from making campaign contributions.
“This bill is a very carefully drafted bill,” Quinn said in Chicago today. He did not openly support the bill as it moved through the legislature but said he would keep an open mind if it reached his desk. “Our law enforcement will be involved, our Department of Public Health, our Department of Agriculture. And the reason I’m signing the bill is because it is so tightly and properly drafted.”
Last week, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a medical marijuana bill into law. Medical cannabis is also legal in Washington, D.C.
Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, sponsor of SB 1 and a longtime advocate for medical marijuana, said he has been trying to get a medical cannabis bill passed in Illinois for years because of stories he hears from the patients who are turning to an illegal solution for their pain. “Are we really going to be a state where we’re going to allow a 74-year-old granny with colon cancer to have to search for a remedy for her pain and her nausea? I don’t think that’s the kind of state we want to be,” he said. Lang said he is already getting calls from lawmakers in states that do not have legalized medical marijuana “asking for copies [of the legislation], asking how we did it.” Lang said the drug should be an option for patients who know have to rely on powerful pain killers such as oxycodone, which can leave patients dazed, unresponsive and ultimately addicted. “Those medications, which are designed to help them feel better, actually ruined their lives,” he said.
Marijuana is illegal at the federal level. But Lang said that growers and sellers who follow the rules in Illinois run little risk of getting arrested by the feds. He said that when the federal government has intervened in other states, it was when growers or sellers were “breaking state law,” “selling product out the back door,” or when the “grow sites are way larger than they need to be.”
The bill has the support of several prominent groups in the legal and medical communities, including the Illinois State Bar Association and the Illinois Nurses Association. However, opponents have voiced concerns that the law would send the wrong message to young people about the drug or may open the door to the eventual legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Last year, voters in Colorado and Washington voted to legalize the drug for recreational use.
But Army veteran Jim Champion, who has been advocating for the new law, says that it is a template for other states looking for a way to tightly regulate medical cannabis. “They’re looking at Illinois and saying, ‘That is the right way to conduct a legitimate medical cannabis program,’ and it makes me proud. Illinois gets dissed on a whole lot, but I’m proud to stand here today to say that this isn’t a Cheech and Chong bill. We’re an actual model for the rest of the United States,” said Champion, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 25 years ago.
Champion said he is proud of his service in the Army, but he says, “I have always been ashamed that I was criminalized by the actions that I was forced to take for my pain relief.”
It is likely that Champion's story, along with input from other veterans whom Quinn talked to, played a significant role in the governor’s decision to sign the bill. Quinn is known as a passionate advocate for veterans’ issues. Under the new law, patients must have longstanding relationships with the doctors who prescribe them marijuana. However, there is an exception for veterans because presumably they will not be able to obtain prescriptions from doctors working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans who have been treated by a military doctor for one of the illnesses listed under the law would be able to seek approval from a civilian doctor.
Sandy Champion, Jim's wife, said that at first she was opposed to him using the drug, until she saw how much it helped relieve his pain. She is her husband’s caretaker and also obtains marijuana for his treatment. “When I go out to the streets to get this medicine, I risk my life, I risk my career future and I risk getting him bad product because any of us know that there can be some chemicals put in this stuff and it can be really bad for them,” she said today. “So this bill is going to help me to be able to go into a dispensary legally, walk in and buy it with no fear.”