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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Advocates of Lang's bill say legislators are so worried about what law enforcement thinks that they lose track of what anyone else thinks. Illinois' medical marijuana act is a health bill, they point out—not a crime bill. The Illinois Nurses Association has endorsed it. The American Academy of Physicians—the second-largest physicians group in the country—wrote in a 2008 position paper that it supports funding for research on the medicinal value of marijuana, and "strongly urges protection from criminal or civil penalties for patients who use medical marijuana as permitted under state laws."

Senator Millner says his wife, Debbie, a schoolteacher, worries that legalized marijuana would corrupt children. Lang dismisses this: "We can't let our youth see people buying a product that's helping their lives!" he cries in mock horror. "We can let them go to the drugstore and buy products that could kill them. . . . In our medicine cabinets are seriously addictive drugs. Nobody in the history of the world has died of an overdose of marijuana, but every day people die from overdoses of Vicodin and codeine and OxyContin."

This is a familiar argument for allowing medical cannabis and it helped win Linda Holmes's vote. "We need to have controls in place like we do with any drug for it not to be abused," she says. "But prescription drugs are abused all the time. This is not a drug that incapacitates people. It gives them quality of life, the energy to walk their kids to school in the morning, to be able to get up off the couch."

When Julie Falco discovered the relief marijuana gave her, she contacted Illinois NORML about joining the political movement to legalize it. But she was wary of speaking openly about her use of the drug—until she read about Jonathan Magbie.

Magbie, who lives in Washington, D.C., was paralyzed from the neck down in a drunk-driving accident at the age of four. In 2004, at 27, he was convicted of marijuana possession. He told the judge he used pot to feel better and to treat some of the symptoms of quadriplegia, including the limb spasticity that often plagues MS patients. He was sentenced lightly, to ten days in jail. But a miscommunication between hospital, court, and jail officials left him without the ventilator he needed to breathe at night. Four days into his sentence, Magbie died.

"I was thinking I had it bad," says Falco. But after reading Magbie's story, she said to herself, "'Shit, I can still dress myself. I can use the bathroom.' He couldn't even do that much, and you're going to deny him something that helps him get through his day? That was my tipping point."

Falco decided the value of going public outweighed the risks. She embraced her new attitude by declaring whenever she got the chance: "I am Julie Falco, and I use medical cannabis." Back then, few other medical users were in the public eye, and Falco began to fill that void by appearing on TV shows, talking to reporters, and trekking to Springfield to lobby for legislation. Now that other patients have started to speak out, too, she says she no longer feels like the poster child for medical marijuana.

Linn's work brings him into contact with many people for whom the drug provides medical relief from serious conditions. But he doesn't believe that you have to be gravely ill or injured to experience the plant's healing properties.

"What do people consider self-medication?" he says. "California's concept is that any type of cannabis use is medical use. . . . I kind of adhere to that myself. When we were younger, we were trying to escape the trauma of going through high school, and [smoking pot] was our medicine."

Wait, didn't he just blame "bozos in California" who take cannabis "for headaches and hangnails" for the suffering of people with serious illnesses in Illinois? Linn conceded the point, but added that his "personal view" is not his "professional view."

"That patients in Illinois are denied help," he says, "because California has an open view of what is a medical use and what isn't is tough to swallow."

Personal viewpoints like Linn's, though, concerns skeptics like senators Millner and Althoff, who worry that a medical cannabis program, if passed, will lay the groundwork for legal recreational pot use. Millner suspects that's what the bill's proponents hope for, anyway. "Maybe we should just be more transparent about it," he says, suggesting that when it comes to marijuana legalization, all or nothing makes the most sense.

Many advocates admit as much. "Medical marijuana is a crack in the wall of ignorance," says Madeline Martinez, director of Oregon NORML and herself a patient.

In fact, as Illinois lawmakers struggle over their carefully restrictive bill, proposals to fully legalize marijuana are gathering steam in other states. California's Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act got enough signatures to be placed on the ballot this November—and a poll last year showed 56 percent of voters in the state favored the proposal. A bill to legalize adult marijuana use and possession in the state of Washington died in committee in January, but its backers are optimistic that they can revive it.

If taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use would eliminate the dilemma of law enforcement for medical cannabis patients, it could also dispel concerns, like Debbie Millner's, about children's exposure to the drug. "They can get it in high school," says Madeline Martinez. "We want to tax and regulate it so they have to get it from behind a counter. We need to try to capture the revenue that's being lost to criminal organizations."

The message Gierach stresses is that marijuana prohibition feeds a cycle of crime and violence, the way Prohibition in the 1920s fueled the rise of gangsters like Al Capone. "Law enforcement is out there working for the drug cartels to make sure that the only place people can buy their marijuana is from an illicit source," he says. "The irony is that the good guys are . . . putting themselves on the same side of the line of scrimmage as Pablo Escobar." In 1989 Forbes listed the Colombian drug lord as the seventh-richest man in the world.

Even in Oregon, whose medical marijuana program has been called the gold standard, patients face hurdles in getting their medicine, says Martinez. "The state of Oregon just gives you your card and they say good luck," she says. "Not even a handbook was given to help patients through the maze of issues that they need to deal with."

The biggest of those is having to grow one's own pot in the absence of dispensaries. It's a daunting task that sends many patients right back to the black market. "Trying to grow it yourself is really hard, like trying to grow all your own vegetables," Martinez says. "Medicine's no good if you can't access it."

I asked Julie Falco where she gets hers.

Her answer was swift and dispassionate. "That I will not disclose," she said. "I've got great supporters. They're just people who want to help. I am blessed now—because of the work I'm doing, I'm getting helped out. Not everybody gets that, and that's what crushes me."

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