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State House snuffs out medical marijuana bill

Updated: August 28, 2011 12:21AM

SPRINGFIELD — A pilot program to legalize marijuana for medicinal use failed Thursday in the Illinois House amid worries it could lead to greater drug abuse and crime.

The measure, which was sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), failed by a 53-61 vote, with four House members voting present. Sixty votes were necessary for the bill to pass.

The vote amounted to a serious setback for proponents of the concept because a more lenient proposal failed in the House in January by a narrower margin.

“The core of this bill is helping sick people feel better,” Lang said.

Under his plan, which would last for three years, those diagnosed with 19 illnesses that included cancer, Crohn’s disease, lupus and multiple sclerosis were allowed to buy and possess no more than 2.5 grams of marijuana at a time.

It would also set up 59 non-profit dispensaries throughout the state where people could buy marijuana. It would also permit employers and landlords to bar the use of the drug on their premises and forbid anyone from driving within six hours after using marijuana.

But GOP critics said the legislation would make marijuana more accessible, particularly to young people, and did not have backing from groups such as the American Cancer Society that advocate for the terminally ill.

“I don’t see how in this state Legislature we can endorse a bill that supersedes the federal law in the United States. The [Food and Drug Administration] has ruled this is not a medicine. This is an illegal substance,” said Rep. Patti Bellock (R-Hinsdale), who voted against the bill.

Rep. Jim Sacia (R-Pecatonica), a former FBI agent, cited the possibility that state employees involved in administering the pilot program could face prosecution from the federal government if the plan was approved.

“This is being passed off to you as a bill that is for the benefit of those who are extremely sick,” he said. “Ladies and gentleman, giving someone this much marijuana and believing it will not create problems is absolutely unacceptable.”

Nine Republicans voted in support of Lang’s legislation, including House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego), who dropped his earlier opposition to the proposal and was the only GOP member to speak in favor.

“I talked to many in the medical community: physicians, oncologists, nurses, nurses assistants,” Cross said. “They’d tell me … medical marijuana was the only thing that provided relief to people with these illnesses. I started asking myself, why can’t we in this year, in this state, find relief for people going through their darkest days.”

Lang, who used a parliamentary maneuver to keep the plan alive for a possible vote later, repeatedly pointed to the House gallery where disabled Army veteran, Jim Champion, of Somanauk – who has multiple sclerosis and uses marijuana to treat his symptoms — was seated.

“The question is are we going to make Jim Champion a criminal?” Lang said.

After the vote, Champion expressed disappointment and disbelief at the outcome of Thursday’s vote but continued to defend pot as the only thing that makes his life as an MS patient bearable.

“At night when I sleep, my knees grind together, and I almost end up turning into a ball. I wake up in the morning and take my pills, and they do nothing,” Champion said. “I take three puffs off a cannabis cigarette, and I am able to separate my legs. I am able to basically get ready in the morning.”

Contributing: Stephen DiBenedetto

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