04/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Medical Marijuana Bill Clears First Hurdle In Illinois

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - People suffering from cancer, AIDS and other diseases could turn to marijuana for pain relief under a plan approved Wednesday by an Illinois House committee despite claims that it would be a step toward legalizing pot.

Under the legislation, people with a doctor's permission would be eligible for a state registry card allowing up to seven marijuana plants in their homes and 2 ounces of "usable cannabis." The measure is written to expire after three years.

Advocates say marijuana eases pain without the side effects of heavier drugs and reduces nausea from chemotherapy.

"There is needless suffering going on out there," said the sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. "Everything else is a sideshow."

But Rep. Patricia Bellock, R-Hinsdale, said the bill raises serious questions. Will it be misused by people who don't really have a medical need for marijuana? Would it open the door to outright legalization of pot use in Illinois?

"It is the No. 1 drug that introduces young people to other drugs," said Bellock, who voted against the measure in the Human Services Committee.

Still, it passed 4-3 and now goes to the House floor.

Thirteen states already have medical marijuana laws that preclude a criminal conviction for use, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Similar legislation was approved by a state Senate committee last year, but the sponsor never found enough support to call it for a vote. That sponsor, John Cullerton, is now Senate president, so the latest proposal should have an influential supporter if it ever reaches the Senate.

Lang called it a "difficult but not impossible bill to pass" in the House, even as a three-year experiment.

Bellock said she doesn't object in principle to allowing the use of marijuana for medical reasons, but she fears this plan is too lax. She said a version where the pot is handled by pharmacists would reduce the chance of abuse.

Bellock also questioned whether Illinois could take the step while marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Technically, Illinois authorized medical marijuana in 1978. But implementation was left to the Public Health Department and it never took action, so the law has been in limbo.


Lang told CBS 2 that he has not spoken with Gov. Pat Quinn about the bill, but that he expects Quinn to support it.

Democratic Reps. Cynthia Soto and Karen Yarbrough and Republican Rep. Angelo Saviano co-sponsored the legislation.

The synopsis of the bill approved by the House committee:

Creates the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act. Provides that when a person has been diagnosed by a physician as having a debilitating medical condition, the person and the person's primary caregiver may be issued a registry identification card by the Department of Public Health that permits the person or the person's primary caregiver to legally possess no more than 7 dried cannabis plants and 2 ounces of dried usable cannabis. Amends the Cannabis Control Act to make conforming changes. Provides that the provisions of the Act are severable. Provides that the Act is repealed 3 years after its effective date. Repeals the research provisions of the Cannabis Control Act. Effective immediately.

Lang made his case for the bill on Chicago Public Radio while Bellock staked out the dissenting opinion. Listen to both here.

The medical marijuana bill's advancement comes a day after Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Huntley staked out the libertarian position while calling for the legalization of marijuana:

The day may not be far off when Americans conclude, as they did with Prohibition in the 1930s, that violence associated with the marijuana ban is worse than the drug's social ills.
Marijuana prohibition no longer makes sense, if it ever did. For the record, my recreational chemical of choice is alcohol. After the sun sets, I like to enjoy a glass of wine or scotch. Why shouldn't my neighbor, if so inclined, be able to relax with a joint?

Lang, who said he read Huntley's column, reiterated to CBS that his bill is about medicinal use and not part of a larger legalization effort.