"Legislators by Their Very Nature Are Not Profiles in Courage"

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Representative Lou Lang says he needs to find two votes between now and early January and he'll be able to pass his bill legalizing medical marijuana in Illinois.

"If we can twist a few arms in an appropriate way I think I have a chance," says Lang. "If not, I'll refile the bill for the next session."

The medical marijuana bill scraped by the senate last May, and Lang, a Skokie Democrat, decided the best way to get it through the house was during the lame duck session. But on Wednesday 53 representatives voted for it and 59 against. It needed 60 to pass. A parliamentary gimmick, an order of postponed consideration, allows Lang to try one more time in early January, when the old house convenes for a few days before the new house is sworn in.

Last April Lang told the Reader he counted 52 votes for passage. He said then that his strategy was to wait until January because a lame duck vote in December would require an extra-majority. But he says now he figured out a way to get around that. He amended the bill so it wouldn't take effect until next July 1, rather than immediately; this meant a simple majority could pass it.

But he didn't get a simple majority. He got one more vote than he'd counted in April.

"The fact is, I had 58 votes," he tells me. "The board only said 53, but there are five who would have changed their vote to yes. If I can show them 60-plus, they'll be back. I've got a small target group of 12 to 15 I think I may have a chance to convince." He won't mention names, but he says about half are lame ducks and about half are Republicans. "Most Democrats are for it and most Republicans are against it," he says, "but plenty of Republicans have an open mind on the subject."

After rejecting the marijuana bill, the house turned to an even more politically charged measure and passed the bill creating civil unions in Illinois. Was it too much to ask the same legislators to go out on a limb twice in one day? Maybe, says Lang. "The civil unions bill was a very important bill. It's been around a lot longer than my bill, and I'm thrilled it passed." He thought his bill caught a break by being brought up first, but civil unions turned out to be the issue more legislators were ready to take a stand on. "In the end," says Lang, "what I was facing was 30 to 40 legislators who looked me in the eye and said they were for my bill but couldn't vote for it."

Lang isn't at all sure he'll get to 60 in January. "If we can twist a few arms in an appropriate way I think I have a chance," he says. "I have to appeal to their judgment, to their sense of public policy, to their sense of fairness to help Illinoisans get the health care they need. And I don't even have to get all of them. I need to get two of them. Legislators by their very nature are not profiles in courage. It happens quite often that they'll say 'OK, I'll vote for your bill, but I'll only vote for it if it's going to pass. If it fails what do I get out of it?' You hear a lot of people say 'I'll be the 60th vote.' It got up to 56 votes and a couple of people peeled off and I know who they are. But I know I have 58 votes."

He says, "In my years in the house it's fair to say nobody passed more bills than I have. Therefore I'll tell you I know how to pass a bill. I know what to say and do. We'll use any tool that I have." Which, he says, might be this: "Hey, you voted for civil unions and no one came out of the sky and took you away to a foreign planet, you lived through the experience. Now you can do the right thing again."

He says, "The last two votes are going to be difficult, but for me it's become personal. I've spent a good deal of time in the last two years with patients and patients' families, some of whom use this product illegally. I challenged colleagues. I said, 'If you got a call from a loved one who was sick and they said "I've tried other products and they're not working, the only thing that gives me relief is marijuana," ask yourselves if it would even matter to you if it was legal or not. You'd go through heaven and hell to get the product. If this is true, you cannot in good conscience vote against this bill.'

"Nevertheless, a majority did.

"There are as many as 30 legislators who I know as matter of conscience believe [a yes vote] is the wrong thing to do. Everyone should vote their conscience on every bill — I respect that. But for those who told me it was the right thing to do — I don’t know, I don’t know." He says the house gallery was full of patients with their canes and wheelchairs. "Including Montel Williams. He has MS. He's been taking marijuana for years. Nothing else has worked for him. He flew out from California on his own dime because he wanted to. He was up in the gallery.

"I just don't know how you can say no."

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