Personal Stories Push Medical Marijuana Through Illinois House

Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, speakes with reporters after his medical marijuana legislation passed the Illinois House.

Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, speaks with reporters after his medical marijuana legislation passed the Illinois House.

The Illinois House of Representatives approved the medical use of marijuana Wednesday. The legislation still has to be voted on by the Senate and signed by the governor before people will be able to seek out the drug. But the House vote is still a milestone — supporters have been trying for years to get something like this passed, without success. Brian Mackey takes a look at what finally put medical marijuana over the top.

Backers say this would be the strictest medical marijuana system in the country.
There would be a limited number of growers and dispensaries, and they’d be tightly regulated. Patients could only have a small amount of marijuana at a time, and there are rules about everything from establishing proof of need to transporting the drug in a car.

But during the House’s 80 minutes of debate, those issues were not the main points of discussion. Instead, lawmakers talked about personal encounters with people who say marijuana would be the best way to treat their pain.

MONTAGE: “It is so heartbreaking to see someone you love, to go through such debilitating pain, when there can be a solution to that pain.” … “My grandma died at the age of 94. She lived a wonderful, full life, but spent the last several weeks of her life, as so many people do, in a drug-induced haze.” … “He suffered for two solid years with terminal cancer.”

The last voice was that of Rep. JoAnn Osmond, a Republican of Antioch. She says she had a friend with cancer who, with his wife, came to live with her for two years.

OSMOND: “And my dear friend Ralph died two years ago.”

Ralph tried to take OxyContin for his pain, but Osmond says it made him “extremely sick.” Once, just once, Ralph asked if he could have marijuana in the house.

OSMOND: “And I said no. Sometimes I [regret] that, because I know it might have helped him.”

In different forms, that story was told again and again. After years of trying and failing, it took a few surprises to get medical marijuana through the House.

TRYON: “Every time this bill has come before this body, I have rose in opposition to it. Today I am prepared to support it.”

Mike Tryon is a Republican representative from Crystal Lake. He says he met with people who convinced him that marijuana is the only thing they’ve found to alleviate their pain.

TRYON: “Why should they have to obtain it illegally? Why should they have to enter into a culture to obtain it that is illegal?”

But it’s precisely that illegal culture, and the threat of it spreading into the mainstream, that has other lawmakers worried.

SACIA: “We know there’s a lot of potheads out there. Folks that don’t really have a medical issue.”

Jim Sacia is a Republican from Pecatonica. He says he thinks it’d be all too easy for someone to fake their way into a pass to get high.

SACIA: “My concern is that these folks will evolve to the doctor with ‘splitting headaches’ and ‘severe back pain’ and all kinds of maladies.”

Au contraire, says the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie.

LANG: “See, this is a case, this is case where — and I’m trying not to insult you — but this is a case …”
SACIA: “But you’re gonna.”
LANG: “Well, maybe. This is a case where you need to read the bill.”

The bill says patients will have to be diagnosed with at least one of 33 medical conditions, including but not limited to cancer, AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, a spinal cord injury, a traumatic brain injury, or Lupus. Those interested in getting marijuana will have to provide their medical records to the state for verification. Sacia, however, was not convinced.

SACIA: “I absolutely believe that I could go to my doctor, and go through my history of medical conditions, and I could get medical marijuana under your bill. I believe I could, sir.”
LANG: “Do you have any of those medical conditions today?”
SACIA: “I believe I do.”
LANG: “Then maybe you need the product, sir.”
SACIA: “I’m doing well without it.”

Sacia voted no. Nevertheless, the legislation passed, barely, 61-57. That’s just one vote over the minimum required in the House. Now it goes to the Senate, where Lang says he’s optimistic it’ll pass there.

And even Gov. Pat Quinn, who often refuses to reveal where he stands on legislation, says he’s “open minded” on medical marijuana. Like many others, he says he was moved by a meeting with someone who was in pain.

QUINN: “He was suffering from war wounds. And found definite help by medical use of marijuana. And so I was quite impressed by his heartfelt feeling.”

Around government, it’s often said that “all politics is local.” But in this case, the politics were personal.

— Brian Mackey

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