Compassion and Mercy

Two years ago, if you had asked whether legalizing medical marijuana should be a high priority for PCG, I would have smiled politely and said “no.”

PCG generally presses for legislation that could make a difference in the lives of thousands, or even millions, of people. We believe in “systemic” change – in health care, immigration reform, the environment, or a state budget that should adequately fund education and human services for all in Illinois who need them.

Why, then, did I participate in a press conference Saturday urging the passage of the “Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act,” SB 1381, pending in the Illinois House following Senate approval last spring?

The first reason is simple. Doing so is an act of compassion and mercy. Victims of cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other serious health problems have given compelling testimony that cannabis (the technical term for marijuana) provides relief from pain and suffering. This relief often can come in no other way.

The number of people who need marijuana for this purpose is small, but if you are one of them, or have a family member who is, the issue of legalization suddenly becomes urgent.

The second reason is that the passing this bill would send the message that it’s OK to speak honestly and intelligently about drug policy in Illinois. That is very difficult right now.

Lou Lang, (D-Skokie) says that he has approached all 118 members of the Illinois House. He reports that 92 say privately to him, “This is a good bill. I hope you can pass it.” But of this group, apparently only 52 are prepared to vote “yes.” They fear “spin politics” that will label them as “soft on drugs.” They are afraid to do what they know is right.

In reality, the arguments against this bill do not hold up. The biggest fear is that legalizing medical marijuana use will encourage recreational marijuana use, especially among the young. But similar bills have been passed in 14 other states. The evidence cited by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington D.C. advocacy group, for the 11 states where follow-up analysis has been done suggest no such effect.

Others claim that the bill is unnecessary since Marinol, a pill which contains marijuana, has Federal Drug Administration approval. But this drug has only one of the 85 ingredients contained in cannabis; consequently, it does not provide everyone relief. Besides, taking a pill is hardly helpful when one is noxious and vomiting.

To be sure, there are “horror stories” out of California, where a medical marijuana bill was passed without adequate safeguards and has seemed to lead to some recreational use. But the legislation being considered in Illinois includes extensive regulations concerning access, quantity, and physician oversight. It’s also a pilot project requiring legislative approval to continue after three years.

A Pew Research Center Report released two weeks ago showed that 73% of the U.S. public supports the use of marijuana as medicine. My guess is that fears of political reprisal for doing the right thing on SB 1381 are greatly exaggerated. (This also applies to national health care: support will grow as the legislation becomes better understood and fear-mongering becomes exposed for what it is.)

We applaud Rep. Lou Lang for leading this effort in the House and Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton) in the Senate. Dr. Quentin Young, the Illinois Public Health Advocate, stated at Saturday’s press conference that he will urge the governor to sign the bill when it appears on his desk. It is time for the Illinois General Assembly to put it there.

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