Compassion Now

In the next two or three weeks, Illinois could become the fifteenth state to pass legislation permitting the use of marijuana for medical purposes. We are hoping that SB 1381 will be approved in the veto session of the Illinois General Assembly which begins on November 16th.

Since PCG works on behalf of economic and political justice, legalizing medical marijuana might not seem the most obvious of goals. Why, then, are we investing time and energy on it? There is both a narrow, but very compelling goal, and a broader one as well.

We became involved because of our efforts on the larger issue of drug policy reform. In the course of this work, we found that there are individuals who suffer severe and chronic pain for whom the medical use of marijuana is, perhaps literally, a God-send. How can we not want to help them?

I believe the testimony of those suffering from MS, cancer, Crohn’s disease, and HIV-AIDS who say marijuana relieves pain whereas other choices do not. The only prescription drug with elements of marijuana, Marinol, is a pill, which is not helpful if one is suffering from nausea and vomiting. And marijuana has ingredients that Marinol does not. It is especially helpful with degenerative nerve pain.

Would legalizing medical marijuana lead to broader use for recreational purposes? This may have happened in some other states where this measure was approved on ballot initiatives that gave little or no attention to how it would be implemented. Just the opposite is the case with SB 1381.

The bill will be implemented by the State Department of Public Health. All patients must register with the Department and obtain written certifications from their doctors that they suffer from a qualifying ailment for which marijuana may be therapeutic. Centers for distribution will be more tightly regulated than Illinois pharmacies: all employers (distributors) will obtain department certification. The Department will set standards for record keeping and security. All participants, including the centers, will be subject to random audits.

And the entire bill is, in effect, a pilot program. It will sunset after three years unless the General Assembly renews it.

Some fear that this step will make marijuana seem more acceptable, especially to young people. Current evidence indicates otherwise. In the 11 of the 14 states studied so far, teen use of marijuana has gone down (Medical Marijuana Project).

And this is where our broader goals concerning drug policy reform become relevant. There is a fundamental choice to be made about how society should respond to all forms of potentially addictive behavior (of which marijuana is close to the bottom of the list, far below alcohol, gambling, and even coffee and cigarettes). One can choose either the total banning of an activity, or what might be called intelligent regulation. The overriding goal should be to minimize harm both to “users” and society, including those personally affected, especially family.

Those now arguing against legalizing medical marijuana because it might cause marijuana use to seem more acceptable are trying to set policy with blinders on. We should be willing to take a step on behalf of compassion, even as we debate publicly our broader policies concerning drug use. To do anything else is, in fact, to insult a public which is quite able to arrive at measures that serve the common good, if only they are respected and listened to.

Some of us are old enough to remember that cantankerous old conservative, Barry Goldwater, who might have said, “Repression to avoid vice is no virtue.”

Until we have the broader public debate, can’t we at least take the compassionate step of helping those whose pain and suffering can be relieved in no other way? Please help us to support SB 1381.

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