Medical Marijuana Bill On Backburner Despite New Obama Policy

A bill to legalize medical marijuana that narrowly passed the Illinois Senate in May faces an uncertain future in the General Assembly in spite of what may be the most favorable conditions for passing medical cannabis legislation in decades.

Progress toward legalizing the use of medical marijuana by the terminally or chronically ill continues at a glacial pace in Illinois, despite wide popular support, the willingness of both Gov. Pat Quinn and his gubernatorial primary rival, state Comptroller Dan Hynes, to consider it, and renewed assurance from the White House that the federal government will not prosecute patients or caregivers who comply with state medical marijuana laws.

Bill sponsor Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said last week that an overwhelming majority of House members have told him privately that they support the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act yet are unwilling to do so publicly.

"If every legislator who told me we should pass this bill actually voted for it, we'd pass it tomorrow," Lang told the Huffington Post. "But we have too many legislators who don't have the courage of their convictions."

Quinn would give "serious consideration" to a medical marijuana bill that reaches his desk, campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Austin told the Huffington Post last week.

Hynes, who is challenging Quinn in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said earlier this month he supports the idea of legalizing medical marijuana but wants to see the details before endorsing a plan.

A poll commissioned by the pro-decriminalization Marijuana Policy Project before the Senate bill was first considered in 2008 found 68 percent of Illinoisans support legalizing medical marijuana.

After a year of revisions, delays and some heated floor debate, the Senate version of the bill passed 30-28-1 last session. Law enforcement agencies and medical groups largely opposed it.

Eight "nay" votes and the one "present" vote were from Democrats. Two "yea"s came from Republicans. The rest split along party lines.

The Illinois State Medical Society has opposed the legalization of medical marijuana since 1976, in part because of worries about the side effects of smoking marijuana and in part because it would like to see more scientific data on what constitutes appropriate doses.

The society does support further research on medical marijuana. But on the question of legalizing medical marijuana use for terminal cases or patients with chronic diseases- the target of the current legislation- the group has no opinion.

"That question specifically has never come up for a vote," society president Dr. James Milam told the Huffington Post. Milam added that the the bill's sponsors have never approached him about the legislation.

Several House members said they doubt the bill will come up before the February primary because legislators are loathe to vote on what they perceive as controversial issues without knowing who their primary opponent will be.

State. Rep. Deborah Mell, a Chicago Democrat, said she decided to co-sponsor the House version of the bill after she got more calls to her office from both liberals and conservatives in support of legalizing medical marijuana than all other issues combined.

Yet Mell echoes a common perception among legislators that medical marijuana is a liberal issue, even though many conservative voters support it.

"This is a very conservative state in terms of issues like that," Mell said. "People who support it are either liberals or people who have experience with chronic suffering."

"That mailer writes itself," State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock) said. "Candidate X voted to make marijuana easier for your children to get and is tearing apart the fabric of our communities."

Franks supports the idea of alleviating people's suffering but said he hasn't yet seen the Senate bill.

As it moved through the Senate last session, the bill grew steadily more stringent. Tighter controls were placed on obtaining prescriptions, fewer cannabis plants were allowed per patient and law enforcement personnel took on a greater role in a committee set up to supervise the system.

The bill also includes a sunset provision, meaning it expires after three years and must be re-approved by the General Assembly.

The Illinois system would most closely resemble Colorado's, said Dan Linn, executive director of the Chicago-based nonprofit Illinois Cannabis Patients Association.

Since the Colorado medical marijuana program started in 2001, 13,102 people have applied for permit cards, with 29 applicants rejected and 18 cards revoked, according to statistics from the Colorado public health department published in July. More than 800 doctors have prescribed medical marijuana for their patients.

Medical marijuana legislation is being considered in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Michigan's legalized medical marijuana program went into full effect in April.

Despite growing momentum for legalizing medical marijuana, Lang said he's unwilling to call it for a vote until he's sure it can pass, something he acknowledged likely won't happen this year.

"I will not call that vote and have it lose," Lang said. "This is a bill I know will pass, if not this year then next, if not next year then the year after that. It has to. It's humane and it's the right thing to do."