Illinois may be close to legalizing medical marijuana.
The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act gained new momentum last week in the Illinois House when state Rep. Tom Cross (R-Plainfield) shifted his support in favor of the bill.
Cross said he decided to collaborate with the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), to "tighten the bill up" after hearing from constituents who said the use of medicinal marijuana is the only thing that eases their severe pain. The bill failed to pass through the state House in January.
If the bill passes, Illinois would have the strictest medicinal marijuana law in the country.
"You have to have a doctor's recommendation, and you have to have a bona fide relationship with this doctor," state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston) said. "You have to take your medical records to the Department of Public Health that will scrutinize them before they give you the license."
If the bill passes, Illinois would join 16 other states and the District of Columbia in opposing federal rulings that explicitly prohibit marijuana usage for either recreational or medicinal purposes. Northwestern student Claire Thompson recognizes the conflict between federal and state laws but thinks legislative reform is necessary.
"I think having any sort of law legalizing marijuana usage is still better than having a law forbidding it across the board," the Medill senior said.
Illinois strict regulations are not ideal, Thompson said, but "necessary to get these kinds of things passed."
In an effort to win support for the bill, Lang agreed to change the original bill by placing stricter regulations on the plant's cultivation, removing the plants from patients' homes to dispensaries.
These new measures have helped garner support and dispel opposition from the bill. The Illinois State Police, Fraternal Order of Police and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce are among recent groups that have now taken a neutral position, a change from their previous opposition to the bill.
Medical cannabis organizations would cultivate and dispense cannabis to patients with valid prescriptions. The bill states there would be 59 such dispensaries, one per senate district. The dispensaries would be subject to random checks from the Illinois Department of Public Health and would incur large fines if their distribution programs were found to be "ineffective."
"There would be no additional cost to taxpayers," Schoenberg said. "The Medical Cannabis Organizations would be subject to application and licensing fees, which would cover the cost of regulating the facilities."
Opponents of the bill have used California, the first state to legalize marijuana for medical reasons, as an example of medicinal cannabis distribution run amok. Medill freshman Joshua Kopel said he finds this comparison frustrating.
"It is artificial to draw parallels between California and another state," Kopel said.
As to whether or not the legalization of medical marijuana could act as a gateway into eventual legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes as well, Kopel said he thought it was hard to say. Thompson remains hopeful that state drug reform, even for medicinal purposes, will serve as "baby steps" for larger scale reform.
"Drug policy is not going to get on the level of national reform until states can demonstrate that it works," she said.
However, Evanston resident and NU alumnus Collin Johnson said he favors stricter regulations such as the ones in the proposed bill.
"I'm okay with medical marijuana as long as it's highly regulated," he said. "I'm not a big fan of marijuana usage in general. I sort of look at it in the same way I do cigarette smoking."
Schoenberg said plans for marijuana legalization were limited to legalizing medical cannabis only, emphasizing strict regulations.
"I have no interest in moving in the direction of California's policy," Schoenberg said.
He said his goal is to allow patients in pain "the kind of quality of life that everyone else has."