Medical Marijuana Is Already Legal in Illinois | Politics | Chicago Reader

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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NORML's Dan Linn too believes there's more public support for legalization than politicians think. "Most people do support the idea of treating people humanely and giving them medicine when they need it," he says. "The biggest obstacle is convincing [lawmakers]. . . . If more people started standing up and talking to their politicians about it, they might be more able to support it."

A poll conducted in February 2009 and paid for by the prolegalization Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) showed 68 percent of Illinois voters approved of allowing seriously ill patients access to medical marijuana. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted nationally in January found 81 percent supported legalizing medical marijuana. "Some of those people have to be living in Illinois, right?" says Linn.

The most powerful force against the bill is the state's law enforcement lobby, Linn says. Groups like the Illinois Sheriffs' Association and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police have a lot of pull in Springfield, and they argue that the law would be too hard to enforce and too easy to abuse. Their influence swayed state senator Pam Althoff, a McHenry County Republican who voted against the bill last May.

"All of my law enforcement agencies object to the program," Althoff says. "They have grave concerns about . . . the difficulty in discriminating between those that are legal and those that are illegal. They are not prepared to handle this kind of legislation at this time."

In February 2009 Althoff polled her 225,000 constituents on medical marijuana. Of the 6 percent who responded, 80 percent supported legalization, but Althoff says the response rate was too small for the results to change her vote.

State senator John Millner, a Republican from Bloomingdale, also voted no. A former president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, he worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years. He said he understands the need for medical marijuana—his wife has cancer—but he thinks the bill, for all its precautions, makes it too easy for aspiring pot dealers to pass themselves off as caregivers and get permission to legally grow marijuana.

"I struggle with looking at this [bill]," Millner said. "If there's anything that would make my spouse feel better, I'd look at that. I've talked to people who are sick and say it would help them and I can believe that. . . . But based upon my past experience, my knowledge of the law, I think this will do more harm than good."

Falco doesn't expect the law enforcement lobby to change its mind. "They're just doing what they've been trained to do," she says. "The law that's in place is against medical cannabis patients. . . . To switch that paradigm, for law enforcement, that's a huge thing."

It's especially huge, says former Cook County prosecutor James Gierach, a proponent of the bill that passed the senate, because legalizing marijuana would compromise a significant revenue stream for law enforcement. Gierach, who sits on the national board of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), says money and other assets seized in drug raids go to local law enforcement (or are divvied up with the feds when they play a role). "Law enforcement people have typically been in favor of the war on drugs because it pays their paycheck. They're riding the drug war gravy train."

LEAP is made up of former soldiers in the drug war—police officers, prosecuting attorneys, DEA agents—who have deserted the cause. They speak out against the war on drugs, write newspaper articles, appear on TV, and testify before state legislatures debating drug policy. Asked about the concern that a medical marijuana law would be tough to enforce, Gierach replies, in effect: what cannabis law isn't? "Marijuana prohibition in all forms is unenforceable," he says. "All the raids in the world and all the prisons in the world are not going to make dandelions or marijuana go away."

Opponents of medical marijuana legalization like to point to California to illustrate how such a law can go wrong. California's notorious for the ease with which citizens can obtain a "green card," a doctor-issued pass to buy pot at one of the many dispensaries that have cropped up since 1996, when the state instituted the first such program.

"There's a lot of attention on California," Linn says. "For people who dramatically need this more than others, they're having a hard time getting it, because so many bozos in California are using it for headaches and hangnails."

The Illinois bill's sponsors have worked to distance it from the California model; it was amended in the senate to reduce the number of plants allowed, more narrowly define a "debilitating condition," tighten controls over patients and caregivers, and put penalties in place for misuse and abuse of the program.

Linn thinks the bill Lang's now trying to pass is much too restrictive—and Lang's not that happy with it either. For instance, instead of a three-year pilot program, Lang would prefer a permanent change in the law. But Linn said in an e-mail that he "would much rather have a crappy medical cannabis program than no medical cannabis program."

"It is what it is," says Lang. "The idea is to make it a very controlled bill. People are scared out of their wits that we're going to have a whole new culture of high people all over the state of Illinois. But the other states [where medical cannabis is legal] never reported problems—except in California, which was a bureaucratic problem, not a marijuana problem."

Some members of the law enforcement community in those other states beg to differ. Richard Beghtol, president of the Washington State Narcotics Investigators Association, wrote in an e-mail that "medical marijuana has been a legal dilemma for the criminal justice system" and that Washington narcotics investigators have seen "widespread abuses" of the state's law since it took effect in 1998. Most of these abuses, according to Beghtol, come in the form of profit-seeking growers trying to exploit the law to legitimize their operations—for example, complaining of headaches in order to get a doctor's permission to grow marijuana, and then selling it. Washington's law resembles Illinois' proposed one in that it provides only for private cannabis growing, not dispensaries, though Washington lets patients and their primary caregivers have up to 15 cannabis plants.

Josh Marquis, a district attorney in Oregon, says most prosecutors support his state's medical marijuana law—which, like Illinois' would, requires a note from the doctor—but agree it's been abused. A handful of patients suffer from conditions such as glaucoma, AIDS, nausea from chemotherapy, or MS, "all of them very legitimate," he says. But "back pain? Depression? Lethargy by a 22-year-old snowboarder? That's ridiculous."

The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, a category that also includes heroin, ecstasy, and other drugs with "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use." Cocaine, methadone, and amphetamines fall on the slightly less restrictive Schedule II list; cold medicines used in the manufacture of crystal meth don't appear until Schedule V.

Last November the American Medical Association urged Washington to review its classification of cannabis. Removing it from Schedule I would allow government research to be done on it—an important step because opponents of legalization often complain that the drug hasn't been subjected to clinical trials. Josh Marquis would like to see cannabis reclassified for another reason: Doctors who believe in cannabis can write notes for patients, he explains, but because cannabis is a Schedule I drug they cannot prescribe it. Take it off Schedule I and doctors could prescribe it as they prescribe other controlled substances. But doctors can write those prescriptions only if the Drug Enforcement Administration has issued them a DEA number. No doctor with the authority to prescribe controlled substances wants the DEA to take away his or her number—which is why Marquis believes that the same doctors who casually write notes for cannabis would be far more circumspect about writing prescriptions.


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