Shouts of Joy

Two years ago, when the Illinois House failed by a narrow margin to pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana, patients and their families in the gallery wept openly. Eight days ago, a revised House Bill 1 was approved by a vote of 61-57. The chamber was filled with shouts of joy.

See video of the vote below and find out how your legislator voted.

The measure still requires Senate approval and the Governor’s signature. In the Illinois General Assembly, nothing can ever be taken for granted. Governor Quinn has declared that he is “open-minded” about the measure.

Legalizing medical cannabis has been a long struggle in Illinois, even though public polling has continually shown strong support: over 70% in the vast majority of districts. Why did HB 1 finally pass?

The biggest single answer is simple: the patients who will benefit. A critical number of legislators in recent months came to see the connection between this measure and the suffering of individuals who live in severe, often unremitting pain, for which cannabis is the only relief.

Patients became the bottom line for Republican Majority Leader Tom Cross over a year ago. At first non-committal on the bill, he met with a group of patients and heard their stories. Several hours later he held a press conference to announce his support.

During the House debate, legislators cited memories of their own parents with terminal cancer and the suffering of personal friends. Rep. Deborah Mell, recently afflicted with breast cancer, described what happens with prescription drugs: “There’s a real panic that comes in because it’s like, I can’t live with this pain, but I can’t keep taking these pills.”

It helped when over 250 doctors in Illinois signed a letter endorsing the following statement: “Licensed medical practitioners should not be punished for recommending the medical use of marijuana to seriously ill people and seriously ill people should not be subject to criminal sanctions for using (marijuana) if their medical professions have told them that such use is likely to be beneficial.” They held a press conference on April 16 to announce their public support.

Nationally, the American Nurses Association, The American Public Health Association, the American Academy of HIV Medicine, other medical and religious groups, and two former U.S. Surgeons General have endorsed cannabis as medicine. Others are close and have repeatedly called for further study. Why, then, has the Food and Drug Administration not encouraged – in fact, is continuing to block – research?

Over 50 years ago President Eisenhower warned this country to be wary of an alliance of interests that would distort public policy for private gains. Are we faced today with a comparable unholy nexus between pharmaceutical companies, law enforcement and Congress? Or is it just an entrenched federal bureaucracy that can’t move beyond the profoundly wrong assumption that punishment is the best response to cannabis and other drug use?

Neil Steinberg had it right in the Chicago Sun Times on April 19 when he lamented that it has taken the suffering of patients to raise questions and pass legislation that the federal regulatory agencies, working with the medical profession, should have dealt with years ago.

We should offer our gratitude to the patients who have worked so hard for HB 1. Maybe we should even seek their forgiveness for the fact that it has taken so long.

See video of Rep. Lou Lang, Chief Sponsor, introducing HB 1 on April 17, 2013.

We urge swift approval by the Illinois Senate.

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