suntimes
BRISK 
Weather Updates

Medical marijuana, sex education bills pass Illinois House

ChristBaker (wife Deborah) Rep. Deborah Mell (right) press conference with marriage equality advocates File Photo. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Christin Baker (wife of Deborah) and Rep. Deborah Mell (right) at a press conference with marriage equality advocates File Photo. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

storyidforme: 47878668
tmspicid: 17754866
fileheaderid: 7075438
Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: May 19, 2013 7:41AM



SPRINGFIELD — A push to legalize marijuana to treat a litany of serious health problems dramatically passed the Illinois House Wednesday after a poignant plea from breast-cancer survivor and state Rep. Deborah Mell.

As ill or disabled advocates watched debate from the House gallery, the chamber voted 61-57 to permit the medicinal use of marijuana in a move that eventually could make Illinois the 19th state to allow that.

“If we could pass this bill and offer some relief to people who are in chronic pain, we should do it,” Mell said after silencing the chamber with her own dramatic story.

The move came on a busy legislative day when state lawmakers also waded into the volatile issue of teaching sex education in public schools.

But in the day’s biggest legislative development, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which needed 60 votes to pass, moved to the Senate. Earlier Wednesday, the plan picked up newfound support from Gov. Pat Quinn, who said he was “open-minded” toward it.

“I know every single one of you has compassion in your heart. This is the day to show it,” said Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), the bill’s chief House sponsor. “This is a day to get beyond politics. This is the day to get beyond elections. This is a day to talk about your constituents.”

Critics worried the four-year pilot program that would take effect next January could pave the way for a broader legalization of marijuana and encourage more hardcore drug use among Illinoisans, particularly youth.

But one by one, a bi-partisan bloc of House members argued that marijuana represents a better, less debilitating treatment option for sick friends or relatives than narcotics — a point Mell herself drove home to close out Wednesday’s 75-minute debate.

“I’ve been taking a pain pill now every day since Aug. 5 as a result of some surgeries I had and some chronic pain since then,” Mell said, referring to the double mastectomy she underwent after a diagnosis of breast cancer.

“Two weeks ago, I had a surgery, and I think it’s going to correct that so I can get off this medication. But for a second there, there’s a real panic that comes in. It’s like I can’t live with this pain, but I can’t keep taking these pills, and I’ve gotta tell you it’s real and it’s scary,” she said as the normally bustling House chamber grew silent.

Under Lang’s plan, users would have to suffer from one of 33 ailments or diseases, including cancer, HIV/AIDS and ALS, and have a doctor’s prescription before they would be allowed to purchase and possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana during a 14-day period.

His legislation would authorize 22 growers across Illinois and permit 60 dispensaries where users could purchase the plant.

To win over wavering colleagues, Lang significantly tightened earlier versions of his bill that drew only 53 of the 60 votes needed for passage when the House took up the issue in May 2011 and November 2010.

Under the plan now bound for the Senate, users, growers and sellers would have to undergo fingerprinting and criminal background checks. Employers and landlords could bar medicinal marijuana use in their workplaces and buildings. And, users would have to undergo field sobriety tests if police suspect they are driving under the influence of medical cannabis and could lose their driving privileges.

“This legislation is a model for the country. The product is tightly controlled from seed to sale,” said Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights), a co-sponsor of the legislation and one of eight Republicans to vote for it.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) also voted for it.

“I had people come up to me and say, ‘My aunt lived in Pennsylvania or Colorado and took medical marijuana, and it really made a difference,’” Cross said. “I just think the more and more you listen, it’s one of those things that becomes more acceptable in legislators’ minds.”

Opponents lined up against Lang’s legislation, saying it would encourage drug abuse by those who wouldn’t be legally entitled to use medicinal marijuana.

“I really believe we’re making a mistake if we pass this legislation,” said Rep. Jim Sacia (R-Pecatonica), a former FBI agent who said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should sign off on pot’s medical use if it truly is a legitimate treatment option.

The FDA has not done so, though President Barack Obama’s administration has urged federal prosecutors not to go after legal users in states that allow medicinal marijuana.

Rep. Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro) predicted unintended consequences from the bill and regarded Wednesday’s vote as a possible gateway toward broader legalization of marijuana in Illinois.

“I will guarantee you we’ll be back adjusting this legislation … because of the problems that’ll occur, or we’ll be back on this floor and move for the legalization of marijuana.”

Lang defended his legislation, saying the state was “turning granny into a criminal” because medical cannabis couldn’t be obtained legally by those in need.

Gesturing to the caregivers and other supporters of his bill who came to witness Wednesday’s vote, Lang said: “They have to go to some back alley in some town in the middle of the night to get what their loved ones need to feel better.

“Our goal is simple: to provide a quality of life for people with a product that can’t hurt them,” Lang said.

Meanwhile, on another hot-button issue, the House waded into the volatile debate over the way sex education is taught in public schools.

By a 66-52 vote, the chamber sent the Senate legislation that would require school districts across the state to teach students about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and other facets of sex education. State law now leaves sex education curricula to school districts to determine.

“We do not want sex education to be taught to children at an inappropriate age,” said state Rep. Camille Lilly (D-Chicago), the bill’s lead House sponsor. “This legislation brings standards to what is going to be taught and approved by each of the individual educational boards.”

But critics complained about stripping school systems of local control and argued the state had no business imposing how sex education should be taught.

“Where do we stop with this? Where on earth do we stop with this?” Rep. David Reis (R-Willow Hill) asked.

“This bill goes too far. We’re teaching too young of kids too much,” he said.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.