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The politics of pot

Are our politicians too paranoid to decriminalize marijuana?

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Lawmakers in Springfield haven't wanted to touch anything with even the slightest whiff of marijuana. On the few occasions that reformers have pushed for changes, they've been blocked at every turn by a band of suburban and downstate legislators who argue that marijuana is a dangerous drug that leads to narcotics addiction and violent crime.

In 2001, downstate legislators, looking for an economic shot in the arm, introduced a bill to allow University of Illinois researchers to study potential uses of industrial hemp, a plant related to but not the same as the stuff people smoke.

A couple versions of the bill eventually passed both chambers of the General Assembly, but supporters couldn't muster enough votes to override vetoes by Governor George Ryan, who dismissed the legislation as aiding "groups seeking to remove existing criminal penalties for cannabis/marijuana possession and use."

Lawmakers have been just as hesitant about proposals to allow highly regulated access to small amounts of marijuana for the seriously ill.

“The drug laws themselves may have more of an adverse impact on society than the drugs they seek to regulate.” —Cook County commissioner John Fritchey

Medical marijuana has technically been allowed in Illinois since 1978, but before issuing a prescription doctors are required to get approval from the Department of Human Services, which in turn needs approval from the state police. Because neither department has set up a policy or a protocol for doing this, medical marijuana effectively remains prohibited.

For the last three years state rep Lou Lang has tried to get new regulations in place that would no longer require police approval. Ironically, the state police are neutral on Lang's legislation, but the bill continues to come up short as legislators express concern about sanctioning the use of an illegal drug.

"I don't have an opinion on the pluses or minuses of marijuana," says Lang, who stresses that he has never smoked pot himself. "I have an opinion on a product that my doctor says will help some people."

The prospects for Lang's bill seemed to brighten this spring when house GOP leader Tom Cross of suburban Oswego lent it his backing after hearing from constituents fighting fatal illnesses.

"I had a situation with some friends, who didn't even tell me about it at first, who ended up getting some marijuana for their mother, who was going through some health challenges," Cross said in an interview at the time. "The idea of them harming their professional careers for this really bothered me. They shouldn't have to take that risk."

In consultation with Cross, Lang rewrote the bill, adding even stricter regulations of marijuana dispensaries and limiting access to patients suffering from "debilitating medical conditions" such as cancer, lupus, and AIDS. Analysts said it would be the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country.

Opening debate on the bill on May 5, Lang passionately urged his colleagues to leave politics aside and vote with their conscience. "This is not about drugs. It's not about marijuana. It's about health care," he said.

But conservative opponents wouldn't bend. "The great state of Montana, Big Sky country, is starting to refer to itself as 'big high country' because they cannot control the runaway problem with medical marijuana," said Representative Jim Sacia, a Republican from Freeport. "This bill is an absolute abomination."

The bill was defeated 61-53, with four reps voting present. Months later, Lang is still upset that the issue got so politicized. "People wouldn't vote for it because they're worried about the next election," he says.

Earlier this year, he says, supporters conducted a statewide poll on public views of medical marijuana. A majority of those polled were in favor of the bill. In fact, Lang says, the lowest support it received in any of the state's 118 house districts was 55 percent.

Lang says he shared the results with legislators who voted no. "They said, 'None of the 55 percent will vote for me because of this bill—but lots of the 45 percent will vote against me for it,'" Lang says. "And therein lies the problem."

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