CHICAGO – Chicago resident Julie Falco eats three marijuana brownies a day, her chosen method of using cannabis to control her pain from multiple sclerosis.
For her, marijuana works better and has fewer side effects than the prescription drugs that left her depressed and in a fog, she said. She’s tired of breaking the law, but doesn’t want to give up cannabis.
Falco hopes Illinois lawmakers will remember her story as they consider a three-year pilot program to temporarily legalize medical marijuana.
“Let’s get this done,” Falco said. “People are dying in pain and they need an option.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, wants the House to vote on the bill Wednesday and thinks political momentum is on his side. Freeport Republican Rep. Jim Sacia opposes the bill, but acknowledges Lang may have the votes to pass it.
With 18 states and the District of Columbia now allowing the use of medical marijuana – and two states, Washington and Colorado, recently approving the use of recreational marijuana – the time may be right for passage in Illinois, Lang said. Lawmakers in the past told him they favor the bill but couldn’t vote for it because of political reasons, he said.
Now, some lame ducks can vote for the bill without consequences, and others saw the lack of fallout for those who voted for the bill in the spring. A few fence-sitters could give him the 60 votes he needs, Lang said.
“I ran down the roll call about 10 times just today,” Lang said Tuesday. “It’s hovering around 60. I could be a couple short. I could be a few over.”
Sacia, a former FBI agent, predicts the law will lead recreational drug users to seek out friendly doctors who are willing to say they have a qualifying illness.
“I just see it as a tremendous mistake,” said Sacia, who plans to speak against the bill today.
“Illinois has proven itself to be increasingly liberal. I don’t have any illusions we can change people’s minds. I recognize the momentum is in Rep. Lang’s favor.”
The bill, if passed, would be the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the nation, said Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., a group that tracks legislation and supports legalizing marijuana and regulating the drug like alcohol.
The measure “would create a system in which patients could only acquire their medicine from licensed and regulated nonprofit dispensaries, and home cultivation is not permitted,” Fox said in an email. “The qualifying conditions are extremely narrow compared to other states and are explicit, as opposed to some states that include provisions for more generalized symptoms.”
As the Illinois bill is written, a patient would have to get written certification from their regular doctor and be diagnosed with one of about 30 medical conditions, which include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, “agitation of Alzheimer’s disease” and several pain syndromes. Also on the list: fibromyalgia, a condition with an unknown cause and a lack of definitive tests, and nail-patella syndrome, a rare inherited disorder that can cause pain while walking.
Lang said the list of conditions wasn’t built strictly on medical evidence, but also from conversations with patients and doctors – anecdotal information about marijuana helping with symptoms.
“If it were fully up to me, I would leave it up to a doctor, but California has made a mess of their medical marijuana law” allowing people with vague symptoms to obtain the drug, Lang said.
The Institute of Medicine reviewed the scientific evidence for medical marijuana in a 1999 report, which recommended more research.
But the report also said the effects of THC and other components of marijuana on anxiety reduction, appetite stimulation, nausea reduction and pain relief might be helpful for “particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting.” It also warned that smoking marijuana could be dangerous and could possibly increase the risk of “cancer, lung damage, and poor pregnancy outcomes.”
Other safeguards of the bill include a ban on doctors having financial ties to nonprofit marijuana dispensaries, guarantees that employers could still enforce drug-free policies and no requirement for insurance coverage.
Patients would be limited to 2.5 ounces every two weeks, which Falco considers a minimal amount for someone like her.
“It’s the most restrictive bill anywhere,” Falco said. To win support from doubters, the bill was amended to meet their concerns, she said.
If the bill passes in the House, it would go to the Senate where another, less restrictive bill passed in 2010. Illinois Senate President John Cullerton has been a longtime supporter of efforts to decriminalize medical marijuana, said Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon.
Falco hopes lawmakers will “do the right thing.”
“People ask me if I get high. I don’t know what that means,” Falco said. “High? What that means to me is pain relief. That’s my high. I get pain relief.”