Governor Pat Quinn signs bill making medical marijuana legal in Illinois

August 1, 2013 (CHICAGO)

Governor Pat Quinn deliberated 57 of the 60 days that the constitution allowed him to consider the bill legalizing pot for medical uses. The crowd of medical marijuana proponents applauded as the governor entered the ceremony to sign the bill that passed over two months ago.

"This bill is a very carefully-drafted bill to make sure it's done right, and we want to make sure it's always done right in Illinois," said Quinn.

Illinois joins 19 other states around the country that have signed off on the controversial treatment. Rule making for the medical marijuana bill will not be done until the end of April 2014, so actual legal growing of medicinal pot starts after that. This is a four-year pilot program.

The measure allows Illinois doctors to prescribe as much as two-and-a-half ounces of marijuana every 14 days to patients the doctors believe need the drug.

The pot would be provided locally by licensed growers and dispensed under strict state regulations. The measure's House sponsor says he studied what works or did not work in 19 other states.

Jim Champion of west suburban Somonauk has lived with multiple sclerosis for 25 years.

"At one time I took 59 pills a day, and I was a zombie," said Champion. "I would fall asleep in the middle of conversations."

The only treatment that he says has helped is smoking marijuana.

"You could see in my legs that the muscles had stopped moving for the first time in days, and it brought such relief," said Champion.

For Champion, 47, it is a watershed day as Illinois joins 19 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing pot for medical use.

"I can tell you that I've seen people on their death beds asking me: 'Please get this done. Please get this done,'" said Paul Bachmann of Americans for Disabled Americans.

A patient must be at least 18 and suffering from one of 40 debilitating medical conditions - like MS, cancer, HIV-AIDs. The patient must have a relationship with a doctor and prove that.

"It's critical that the doctor who prescribes any medicine understands the disease and the patient," said Dr. Tony Reder of University of Chicago Hospitals Neurology.

The patient undergoes a criminal background check, and will ultimately be allowed to buy two-and-a-half ounces of marijuana every 14 days from a state-controlled dispensary. There will be 60 dispensaries located around Illinois. The marijuana will come from 22 cultivating centers - pot growing warehouses in Illinois overseen and taxed by the state.

"I have concerns about potential contaminants; I have concerns about lack of regulation of the actual dosage that somebody is going to be receiving," said Loyola Medical Center toxicologist Dr. Christina Hantsch.

Some in the medical community think medical marijuana's risks may outweigh its benefits, and some in law enforcement worry about potential abuse. Bachmann and others see it quite differently.

"It's going to give me a quality of life that I have never had before," said Bachmann.

The new law takes effect next January 1st. Three state agencies are in charge of writing the rules for how this program is going to work, and they have four months to do that, so the actual use of legal medical marijuana under this new law won't begin until sometime later next year.

While this is a law, it is written up as a four year pilot program - meaning that legislators will have to judge it four years hence.

"I say this bill has more controls in it than any bill ever written, not only on marijuana but on drugs in general," said State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie).

"We've seen abuse in other states, particularly in California, so there's a lot of restrictions in there to pacify the more conservative, cautious members of the legislature," said ABC7 political analyst Laura Washington.

"We convinced legislators that indeed this is the strictest law ever written in the United States of America," said Rep. Lang.

House co-sponsor Chris Welch of Maywood predicted future general assemblies will consider legalizing pot for general use.

"I definitely think that this is a first step that may lead to other bills that will address marijuana," said Welch.

The Marijuana Policy Institute surveyed Illinois voters and found 68 percent support the use of pot for medical reasons.

"It's a real human, non-partisan, non-controversial issue by and large, even though it's seen as being controversial sometimes," said Karen O'Keefe of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Opponents of the new law say those restrictions are not enough to prevent people from obtaining the drug for recreational use. Several law enforcement groups, including the Chicago Crime Commission, say the law will have unintended consequences.

"The abuse is built-in, because the law permits people to drive right after smoking marijuana," said former Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Peter Bensinger. "So that's a danger not only to the smoker, but to every Illinois citizen on the highways."

Other opponents of the measure include the Illinois Sheriffs' Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Quinn's primary opponent, Bill Daley, also supports medical marijuana, but had this take on the hoopla surrounding the ceremony for the governor to sign a bill passed in May: "I know the power of incumbents. He's filling jobs like crazy with political people, he's going to be giving out contracts, he's going to be cutting ribbons and doing all that stuff. That's the power of the incumbency. But it doesn't take away the fact that we have the worst fiscal position of any state in the nation."

The state's medicinal marijuana system will not be in place until 2014 and the grown product for dispensaries will not be available until the second half of 2014 at the earliest.

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