Reforming Policy, Relieving Pain

Once again this year, in the final days of the outgoing General Assembly, PCG is part of a coalition seeking to pass a bill legalizing medical marijuana in Illinois. We are very close to success, but the last votes are always the hardest to get. I put the chances at about 50-50.

Sometimes when I tell friends what I am working on—medical marijuana—I am a little defensive. They might see this as a fringe issue. They might wonder why I am spending so much time on it. Whatever the reason, I feel the need to explain.

PCG first became involved because we wanted to counter current drug policy—the so-called War on Drugs—which has turned the United States into a “prisoner nation” (we incarcerate more per capita than any other country in the world) with policies that are costly, futile, and inhumane.

Three years ago, medical marijuana was the only topic we could address in Springfield that had any connection, no matter how indirectly, with the failed War on Drugs. But during these three years, I have become deeply committed to this bill as an end in itself. Its passage would be an act of compassion and common sense.

Stop reading and ask yourself a simple question: have you ever experienced not just severe pain, but chronic pain—pain that you know in some form or other will never go away, will be with you for the rest of your life? I cannot imagine what this would be like. Most of us can’t—because it has never happened to us.

Two months ago, I met an individual who had stepped on a rusty steel spike. His leg became infected. After six surgeries, doctors realized that they could not save the leg and decided to amputate just below the knee. This person now suffers “shadow” or “phantom” pain that causes him to cry out in agony unpredictably several times a day. Cannabis relieves his pain. This bill is for him.

Two patients we work with have multiple sclerosis. Their neurological spasms are often agonizing. Their pain is chronic. They will experience it for the rest of their lives. Cannabis helps.

An individual, whom I have come to know well, has a morphine pump installed in his chest. It kicks in every morning at 6 a.m. Only through cannabis can he avoid severe nausea when it does.

One of our coalition partners recently wrote a letter to a member of the General Assembly at the beginning of the current veto session describing how cannabis would have brought relief to his wife dying of cancer.

Even legislators who still oppose the bill understand that cannabis helps relieve pain in ways that prescription drugs often cannot. When several patients entered the office of one legislator in Springfield last week, he said, “If you’re talking about this as medicine, I get it!”

So what are the attitudes and barriers that need to be overcome? Marijuana is not, as the Food and Drug Administration maintains, a drug like heroin, with no accepted medical value. It is far less harmful than FDA-approved pain medications that sometimes turn patients into vegetables. There is no reason to put in jail those charged with non-violent, mostly low-level drug offenses—a group now comprising at least 40% of the prison population in Illinois.

But if making cannabis available as medicine is all we ever achieve concerning drug policy reform, the effort will have been more than worthwhile. How often do we have the chance to relieve the severe physical suffering of even a few people in this world? That’s why this bill is so important.

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