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State Politics Wed May 22 2013

Saying Hello to Medicinal Marijuana in Illinois

medical_marijuana.jpgHouse Bill 1 may not be the top priority for the General Assembly when it comes to passing legislation before the summer recess, but it's on its way to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk and, with it, medicinal marijuana appears to be on its way to legalization in Illinois.

Here's a quick overview of the bill and some context in medicinal marijuana laws across the United States.

• It's gonna happen.

Illinois has been working toward legalization of medicinal marijuana for the better part of the last decade, and it's going to pass this year, barring a big surprise from Gov. Quinn.

The big move came last Friday, when the State Senate passed the legislation by a 35-21 margin. The bill becomes law when Gov. Quinn signs it, although he is expected to sit on it for a bit before giving it the green light. Still, a conversation he had with the Chicago Tribune this week indicated he'll almost certainly give it the go-ahead in the coming weeks.

Illinois will become the 20th state to approve medicinal marijuana, and there's little question that this is the right thing to do, both from a democratic standpoint and in observation of studies on the issue. Various polls show that more than 60 percent of Illinois voters approve, and the bill has support from a wide variety of groups in the medical community. Additionally, studies show that the concerns of critics (such as increased usage among youths) have not materialized in other states with similar laws.

• Distribution would be carefully controlled.

Illinois will join the majority of states with legalized medicinal marijuana that provide for the creation of dispensaries, although they come in various forms. Here, the state will operate a maximum of 60 across the state, according to the legislation. For reference, Reuters placed the number of medicinal marijuana shops in Los Angeles at over 800, citing that figure in an article on legislation seeking better control of medicinal pot in the area. In certain places, like Michigan, local laws govern in the absence of state regulations for dispensaries.

In addition, Illinois HB 1 would provide for the creation of 22 cultivation centers across the state (one in each State Police district), with the authorities carefully monitoring the dispersal of the product rather than allowing patients to cultivate the drug themselves. Fifteen states currently allow some type of home cultivation, most of which limit home growing to locked locations.

• Not everyone qualifies.

The stereotype is that anyone who wants to can get a medicinal marijuana card in California. Law enforcement has made that more difficult in recent years, but Illinois isn't taking chances with language like that found in the nation's first medicinal marijuana legislation.

Rather, HB 1 contains language regarding the patient, the patient's conditions, and the doctor-patient relationship. In California and some other states, pain qualifies as a condition for which a person can be prescribed medicinal marijuana. In Illinois, there is a clearly listed set of conditions for which it can be prescribed. In addition, the patient has to have a true physician-patient relationship in order to obtain the prescription legally. As for the patients, minors, police officers, firefighters, commercial drivers, and those with felony drug convictions are prohibited from getting medicinal marijuana.

In addition, the bill doesn't prohibit employers from enforcing their own zero-tolerance rules when it comes to drug testing.

• Here's what's next:

The program is being introduced as a four-year pilot for medicinal marijuana (hence, the title, "Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act"), meaning that the law can be phased out if the General Assembly isn't satisfied enough to re-up after the four years are over.

In addition, medicinal marijuana likely will not be widely available for patients for another year as the state works on organizing its dispensaries and cultivation centers, which will need to meet a variety of reporting requirements in order to retain their licenses.

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