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Patients deserve medical marijuana

In this Dec. 6 2012 file phoMichael Cardenas shows medical marijuanhe purchase outside ArizonOrganix first legal medical marijuandispensary open

In this Dec. 6, 2012 file photo Michael Cardenas shows medical marijuana he purchase outside Arizona Organix, the first legal medical marijuana dispensary to open in Glendale, Ariz. Supporters of medical marijuana in Minnesota say they plan to push for legalized medical marijuana in 2013 arguing that medical decisions should be left to doctors rather than police. Seventeen states, including Arizona, and the District of Columbia allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and Colorado and Washington recently legalized marijuana possession for adults with small amounts of the drug. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

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Updated: January 23, 2013 6:06AM

Once again this year, in the final days of the outgoing General Assembly before Jan. 9, a coalition of advocates and patients is seeking to legalize medical marijuana in Illinois. We are very close to success, but the last votes are always the hardest to get.

Sometimes when I tell friends what I am working on — medical marijuana — I am a little defensive. They might see this as a fringe issue. They might wonder why I am spending so much time on it. Whatever the reason, I feel the need to explain.

Some of us first became involved because we wanted to counter current drug policy — the so-called War on Drugs — which has turned the United States into a “prisoner nation” (we incarcerate more per capita than any other country in the world) with policies that are costly, futile, and inhumane.

Three years ago, medical marijuana was the only topic we could address in Springfield that had any connection, no matter how indirectly, with the failed War on Drugs. But during these three years, I have become deeply committed to this bill as an end in itself. Its passage is an act of compassion and common sense.

Ask yourself a simple question: have you ever experienced not just severe pain, but chronic pain — pain that you know in some form or other will never go away, will be with you for the rest of your life? I cannot imagine what this would be like. Most of us can’t — because it has never happened to us.

Two months ago, I met an individual who had stepped on a rusty steel spike. His leg became infected. After six surgeries, doctors realized that they could not save the leg and decided to amputate just below the knee. This person now suffers “shadow” or “phantom” pain that causes him to cry out in agony unpredictably at least several times a day. Cannabis relieves his pain. This bill is for him.

Two patients we work with have multiple sclerosis. Their neurological spasms are often agonizing. Their pain is chronic. They will experience it for the rest of their lives. Cannabis helps.

One individual I have come to know well has a morphine pump installed in his chest. It kicks in every morning at 6 a.m. Only through cannabis can he avoid severe nausea.

Even legislators who oppose the bill understand that cannabis helps relieve pain in ways that prescription drugs often cannot.

So what are the attitude and barriers that need to be overcome? Marijuana is not, as the federal Food and Drug Administration maintains, a drug like heroin, with no accepted medical value. It is far less harmful than FDA-approved pain medications that turn patients into vegetables. Whatever the addictive qualities — far less than alcohol and many prescription drugs — they do not justify the more than 800,000 arrests nationally and 50,000 in Illinois that take place for marijuana possession each year.

But if making cannabis available as medicine is all we ever achieve concerning drug policy reform, the effort will have been more than worthwhile. How often do we have the chance to relieve the severe physical suffering of even a few people in this world? That’s why this bill deserves our support when it comes before the General Assembly in early January.

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is Executive Director Emeritus of Protestants for the Common Good, an Illinois faith-based education and advocacy organization.

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