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Medical Marijuana Is Already Legal in Illinois 

And it has been for three decades. But it'll take the passage of another law to make it available to patients.

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Marijuana can be used for medicinal purposes under the laws of 14 U.S. states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. New Jersey's measure became law January 18.

Here's a little known fact: technically it's legal in Illinois too—and has been for 32 years.

In 1978 the Illinois legislature passed a Cannabis Control Act to try to bring common sense to the state's drug laws. Though the drug causes "physical, psychological and sociological damage," the act asserted, it nevertheless "occupies the unusual position of being widely used and pervasive" in Illinois, and so it was time to establish a "reasonable penalty system" that focused on "commercial traffickers and large-scale purveyors." Even then cannabis was being championed for its medical benefits, so in the name of "research," the act gave the Illinois Department of Human Services permission to "authorize" licensed physicians to use it to treat "glaucoma, the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy in cancer patients or such other procedure certified to be medically necessary."

But there were two catches. The first was that Human Services was merely allowed to give doctors this authority—not required to. The second was that it could act only "with the written approval of the Department of State Police."

In other words, two state departments had to create new policies before medical cannabis could actually be prescribed and provided. To this day neither has. According to Dan Linn, the 27-year-old director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Human Services is "pretty much waiting for the Illinois State Police to give them rules to implement, and the police say they're waiting for the Department of Human Services."

The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which passed the Illinois senate last May by a cliff-hanging vote of 30 to 28, would bring the curtain down on this long-running Alphonse and Gaston act by writing the police out of the script. But like its predecessor, it was crafted with abundant caution. It says that with a physician's written permission, someone diagnosed with a "debilitating medical condition," and also his or her primary caregiver, can have up to six cannabis plants, only three of which can be "mature," or in the budding stage, when the levels of active chemicals are highest. The Illinois Department of Public Health would determine procedural specifics, and the law would expire three years after taking effect unless renewed by the legislature.

What put it over in the senate, Linn believes, besides growing public support, might have been last year's election of John Cullerton as senate president. He'd sponsored similar bills in previous years.

Now the bill, HB2514, has to pass the house, where it's sponsored by Skokie Democrat Lou Lang. Lang, who also sponsored the first gay-rights bill to make it out of that chamber, has supported past proposals to permit the use of medical marijuana in Illinois—all of which have failed. But he didn't sign on as a sponsor until last year, when the medical-marijuana lobby asked him to. Now, he says, "I'm locked at the hip with this bill."

Lang says he's talked about it with each of the other 117 representatives. "Ninety-two of them have looked me in the eye and said, 'This is a great bill. I hope you pass it.'" he says. "But only 52 have said they'll vote for it. They come up with all kinds of excuses. When you have elected officials who choose to vote against their own conscience for political reasons, that's a recipe for bad politics."

click to enlarge HB2514 sponsor Lou Lang
  • HB2514 sponsor Lou Lang
  • AP Photo/Seth Perlman

As the chief sponsor, Lang decides when to put the bill to a vote. He says he'll wait until he's sure he has the votes he needs, because he can't afford to fail: "Many members will vote for this but they'll only do it once. They'll go out on a limb once."

The current legislative session ends in early May. In the fall the General Assembly will convene for a veto session; its formal purpose is to consider legislation the governor might veto over the summer, and although the house could consider new business like the medical marijuana bill, a supermajority of 71 votes would be needed to pass it. "It is entirely possible that I won't take a vote until January," Lang says. A new General Assembly will be sworn in on Wednesday, January 12, and on the preceding Monday and Tuesday the old assembly will convene to wrap up unfinished business. Only a simple majority will be required to pass legislation on those two days, and Lang thinks he might be able to talk a few lame duck lawmakers into changing their positions on HB2514.

Aside from them, where could the remaining votes he needs come from? Linn believes some Republicans from collar counties can be persuaded.

"Yeah, that's true," says Lang, "and a few suburban Cook legislators too. Some of the downstaters are hopeless, but we're working on it."

If the act doesn't pass before January 12, it's history. Lang and his allies in the house and senate would have to start all over again.

Senator Linda Holmes, from Plainfield, understands where lawmakers' political fears come from. The first time the senate voted on the bill, in 2008, she was up for reelection, and cast a noncommittal "present" vote. A Democrat in a traditionally conservative district, she didn't want to take a chance. "The mailer coming out would be 'so-and-so supports drugs,"' she explains. "Unfortunately spin is spin, and that's what happens."

Holmes has multiple sclerosis—a disease whose symptoms marijuana is said to sometimes profoundly alleviate. After her 2008 vote, Julie Falco paid her a visit.

Falco, whom the Reader profiled in 2005, has lived with MS for 22 years and used marijuana as a medication for six. Diagnosed soon after graduating from Illinois State University, Falco says she had tried everything from acupuncture to hydrotherapy to relieve her symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Doctors prescribed Xanaflex, a muscle relaxant, but it made her groggy and loopy. She feared becoming addicted to her Valium. The Betaseron she injected to calm the spasticity in her limbs brought on migraines. She had a cane, and then two canes, and then a walker, and then a wheelchair. By 2004, with her prescription medications giving her more side effects than relief, Falco felt ready to take her own life. Then she tried marijuana.

Holmes told Falco about her success with Betaseron injections—but medications that work for one patient don't always work for another. "I told her, if that's helping you, that's awesome. I'm so happy for you," Falco says. "That didn't work for me. This works for me."

These days Falco uses only marijuana, adding it to baked goods because smoking it can aggravate her headaches. She eats three pot brownies, each about a cubic inch in size, every day. Now and then she'll pop a Tylenol with codeine, but she prefers not to, as it can make her constipated. Cannabis calms her leg spasticity, alleviates her insomnia, eases her pain, and reduces her sense of anxiety in crowds. When we meet, she doesn't seem sick—or, for that matter, high on anything but life. "I've got a love for life again, a love for getting up in the day," she says. "I'll take my chances with a cookie or a brownie as opposed to a needle and a migraine."

click to enlarge Activist Julie Falco and NORML’s Dan Linn at a Marijuana Policy Project fund-raiser in January
  • Activist Julie Falco and NORML’s Dan Linn at a Marijuana Policy Project fund-raiser in January

Falco says people who find out she uses medical marijuana often ask her if she's high all the time. "Well, what does that mean to you?" she says. "My high is pain relief." Once, she tells me, she and some friends smoked pot at a party for fun. Everyone else got stoned and silly, and one of Falco's friends turned to her and said, "Julie, you're not high." It was true, she says: for her it was just another dose of medicine.

Linda Holmes voted yes on the bill last May when it passed the senate; by then she'd even become one of its senate sponsors. She says constituents' reaction has been far more positive than negative.

This doesn't surprise Lang, who says his colleagues' concerns about electoral repercussions are largely unfounded. "They're not going to vote against you because you said to granny down the street, 'We're going to eliminate your pain,'" he says. He says he's gotten more than a thousand phone calls, faxes, and e-mails from voters all over the state about the bill, and that only one has been in opposition.

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