06/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Medical Marijuana Bill A Long Shot Despite Momentum

Despite heavy publicity and increased political momentum, an Illinois Senate bill to legalize medical marijuana in the Land of Lincoln still faces long odds.

State Sen. William R. Haine (D-Alton), sponsor of The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, told the Huffington Post he plans to bring his bill to a floor vote this week, though observers said its chances of passing both the Senate and the House are slim.

"This is not a bill legalizing all marijuana use. This is not a stealth bill legalizing use," Haine said. "This is a bill that restricts use to those who are suffering or dying."

State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock) said that he doesn't "want to see anyone needlessly suffer," but that the bill's chances aren't good.

"I really don't think it will pass the House," Franks said.

Yet a new round of amendments, a recent push from religious leaders and an aggressive advertising campaign from the Marijuana Policy Project has medical marijuana supporters optimistic.

More than 60 religious leaders voiced public support for the Senate and House bills, which would allow patients with diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS to use marijuana on their doctors' advice without the threat of arrest and incarceration.

"With Illinois legislators on both sides of the aisle voting in favor of and sponsoring this legislation, it is clear that this is not a partisan issue -- it is a compassion issue," said Charles Thomas, executive director of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, which is coordinating the religious lobbying effort.

The Marijuana Policy Project recently launched two new TV ads in support of the legislation featuring two sick women who rely on marijuana to ameliorate the pain from their diseases.

Both the Senate and House bills have passed committee. State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who sponsored the House version of the bill, told the Huffington Post that he's waiting for the Senate bill to come to the House.

Lang said the bill has a greater chance of passing in the full Senate than in the full House and that Senate passage could provide political cover for state representatives wavering on their votes.

"The opposition is coming from members of the House who don't have the guts to say 'yes,'" Lang said. "They are fearful of their next election and looking for excuses, while people are out there suffering."

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) is considered a key ally of the bill, having sponsored similar legislation last year.

A Cullerton aide said the Senate's top Democrat backs the current bill.

"He supports it," spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said. "Always has."

Opponents criticize the law as a Trojan Horse for general legalization and worry about marijuana's potential as a "gateway drug."

"It is the No. 1 drug that introduces young people to other drugs," said Rep. Patricia Bellock, (R-Hinsdale), who voted against the measure in the Human Services Committee.

Sen. Haine, a former state's attorney, finds the gateway fears unfounded.

"This is restricted to those who are suffering and in many cases dying," Haine said. "The idea that this is a gateway drug is just not relevant. Gateway to what? To heaven."

According to data cited by Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington organization dedicated to the decriminalization of marijuana, in all 11 states where medical marijuana laws have been in place long enough for studies to be done, teen use of marijuana has gone down, not up.

Illinois State Police oppose the bill in part because they lack a way to measure impairment, which makes it harder to enforce laws against driving under the influence.

In attempt to assuage police concerns, Haine added an amendment removing the right of medical marijuana users to drive while at all under the influence, and increased the oversight of dispensers and sanctions on those who sell marijuana illegally.

"At every step we have tried to avoid or limit the chances of abuse," Haine said. "But I can't allay the fears of people who just refuse to accept that there's anything good to say about marijuana."

State Police spokesman Sgt. Juan Valenzuela said even with the amendments, the agency still opposes the legislation. The Chicago Crime Commission on Monday criticized the bill on the grounds that it would lead to an expansion of drug cartels in Illinois.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns about the controls over the distribution of medical cannabis.

"It feels to me like a backdoor attempt to legalize marijuana," state Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) told the Huffington Post. "What worries me is: are we going to have legitimate doctors writing these prescriptions? There's a danger of fraud there. And I'm worried about giving plants to patients."

As written, the legislation would create a three-year pilot program allowing the Illinois Department of Public Health to give registry identification cards only to people with prescriptions from their own doctor.

Patients would be limited to seven dried cannabis plants and 2 ounces of dried usable cannabis, and Haine added a provision creating a commission of law enforcement and medical personnel to make recommendations on acceptable dosage.

"This is a bill about patients, not kids," Lang said. "It's about 60-, 70-, 80-year-old people with colon cancer."

The bill needs 30 votes to pass the Illinois Senate. Should it become law, Illinois would join 13 other states where medicinal marijuana use is legal. Michigan is the only state in the Midwest that currently allows it.

Legislation increasing access to medical marijuana passed in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Rhode Island on April 29.

Medical marijuana is a perennial issue in Springfield, but bills rarely get out of committee.

"In the whole time I've been here," said Hamos, "I don't think we've considered it once. It always just quietly dies."

The House version of the bill won committee approval for the first time this year. But it still has a long way to go to pass the full chamber.

"I can't believe it would get out of the Senate," Hamos said. "It won't get out of the House."

Haine was reluctant to speculate on whether he thought it could pass the Senate but said he plans to bring the bill for a floor vote anyway.

"I hate to predict," Haine said. "My burden is to raise the consciences of my colleagues so that they see this as an act of compassion and good sense. This is a plant put on God's green Earth by God himself."