Illinois is one House vote away from becoming the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana.
But Rep. Lou Lang, the sponsor of the measure that would enact legalization, is playing it safe. With a subject as sensitive as medical marijuana, he realizes that timing is everything.
"Many members will vote for this," Lang told the Chicago Reader, "but they'll only do it once. They'll go out on a limb once."
A new report from WBBM shows how tantalizingly close the state truly is to passing the bill. It squeaked out of the Illinois Senate almost a year ago; now, Lang says, more than 90 of the 118 members of the House of Representatives have told him they support the bill. And "he has been promised a vote by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) if he can muster the needed votes," the report reads.
The trouble for Lang is that private statements of support may not translate into votes. Nearly 40 of the representatives who support the bill in private say they fear the political fallout of casting an "aye" vote for it in the harsh light of day.
And the clock is ticking on passage of the bill. On January 12, 2011, a new General Assembly will be sworn in. If by that time the bill hasn't passed the House, the Senate's vote won't matter any more; it will be back to square one.
The Chicago Reader's feature on the issue points out that medical marijuana has been technically legal in Illinois since 1978. But the law passed over 30 years ago, the Cannabis Control Act, required the Department of Human Services and the Illinois State Police to enact new policies on pot before it could be legally distributed. Neither agency has.
The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, the bill Lang is bringing to the House, would change all that. From the Reader:
It says that with a physician's written permission, someone diagnosed with a "debilitating medical condition," and also his or her primary caregiver, can have up to six cannabis plants, only three of which can be "mature," or in the budding stage, when the levels of active chemicals are highest. The Illinois Department of Public Health would determine procedural specifics, and the law would expire three years after taking effect unless renewed by the legislature.
Marijuana would be used for the treatment of chronic pain. It would serve as a replacement for drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin, both of which are addictive and can be lethal if overdosed. No tests have shown that either is the case for marijuana.
"The medical profession has no controversy on this, to speak of," Illinois Public Health Advocate Dr. Quentin Young told WBBM.
The political profession, however, is a different matter. In that line of work, Lou Lang is still operating behind the scenes, trying to put controversy to bed before he calls for the decisive vote.