Compassionate cannabis? It's being considered.
The national debate over legalizing marijuana for medical use came to the forefront in Illinois yesterday, as state senators advanced a bill on the issue.
Senate Bill 1381, sponsored by Sen. William Haine (D-Alton), and co-sponsored by Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) and Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg (D-Evanston), would create the "Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program," allowing a person diagnosed by a doctor with a "debilitating medical condition" to legally possess marijuana.
The person could be issued an identification card by the Department of Public Health that would allow possession of no more than seven dried cannabis plants or two ounces of dried cannabis, according to the bill.
The legislation was approved by the Senate's Public Health Committee yesterday. Toby Trimmer, director of communications for Senate President John J. Cullerton says the measure passed 6-2. It will be debated by the full Senate by the end of next week.
Schoenberg said the measure passed with bi-partisan support, but some members of the committee urged Haine to strengthen parts of the bill regarding who can possess the drug.
Medical marijuana is legal in 13 states. Opponents of the idea argue that legal medicinal cannabis would encourage recreational use of the drug, or even legalization for non-medical purposes.
Advocates say it’s a safe drug that eases pain that can be unbearable.
“There is a mountain of scientific evidence that it is a very safe and effective medication for some types of disease for some types of patients,” says Dan Bernath, assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a lobbying group. He says people who suffer from diseases like AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis benefit from medical marijuana.
“For many people, not all, this is the best medicine that best treats their symptoms and their conditions. It’s bizarre to think that the government or law enforcement should be involved in that position,” Bernath says.
For people like Julie Falco, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, medical marijuana is a better treatment than other, harder drugs doctors prescribe.
“The way I look at it, the multiple sclerosis was just seemingly going downhill,” says Falco, 43, of Ravenswood. “I felt like I was losing more mobility, losing functionality. All the pharmaceuticals I took, they gave me severe side effects. I didn’t know where MS began and where the side effects left off.”
Falco began using medicinal cannabis in 2004, and says it quelled thoughts of suicide.
“I don’t get high from this. I get pain relief,” she says.
Testimonials like Falco’s spurred Chicago lawmaker Martinez to co-sponsor the bill.
“If a doctor says… that marijuana can help (patients) ease the pain, and doctors have been able to prescribe this, I don’t see why we should interfere with a doctor-physician relationship,” she says.
But, Martinez says, there must be ways to ensure the law is not taken advantage of.
“There is so much we have to really, really put into fine print,” she says. “We have to fine tune it to the point where it is very restrictive about who is able to get this, and how they’d be able to get it.”
Schoenberg says he's hopeful for the bill's future.
"It's an uphill climb in the full Senate," he says. But he says recent statements by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who said the federal government will not prosecute medicinal cannabis users in states where it is legalized, should put skeptical members at ease.
"Attorney General Holder's recent statements should provide those lawmakers who are on the fence with increased comfort level that is the direction where the country is heading inevitably," he says.
In Illinois, the bill must be approved by the House and the Senate before going to the governor for signature and becoming law.
Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.