"Left Coast" issue here

Jeanette Kendall

Marijuana has long grown wild throughout Central Illinois.

Marijuana, which is an illegal drug, has also long been used by those with medical conditions to relive symptoms of what ails them.

What has not been happening as long are discussions at the Capitol about making medical marijuana legally available.

If one San Francisco man sees his dream realized, medical marijuana will not be just the province of West-Coast activists, but also available here in Peoria.

On March 5, the Illinois Senate Committee on Public Health voted 6-4 to pass Senate Bill 2865, the Alternative Treatment for Serious Diseases Causing Chronic Pain and Debilitating Conditions Act.

“That’s about how it broke down last year,” Bruce Merkin, director of communication for the Marijuana Policy Project, said.

“We always hope to gain a vote or two, but we’re happy to pass.”

This is the third year similar legislation has been introduced in Illinois.

Last year, the Public Health Committee also voted 6-4 on the medical cannabis bill, but it was defeated on the Senate floor, 29-22, despite endorsements by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Illinois Nurses Association.

Both bills allow for “the compassionate use of cannabis by those whose doctors recommend it.”

The Department of Public Health would oversee the program and issue registry cards.

Merkin said those with the cards could grow up to eight marijuana plants or have a caregiver grow them.

Another option is the formation of organizations which would grow the plants. Those would be regulated by the state.

Merkin said this legislation is needed because there are a great number of seriously ill people with multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV and AIDS whose conditions, and even treatments and medications, cause chronic pain or nausea. Those patients could potentially benefit from medical marijuana.

“Right now those folks are criminal, even though their doctors recommend (medical marijuana), and that makes no sense,” Merkin said.

Last year was the first year  the bill reached the Senate floor in Illinois.

He said it is “within striking distance” of passage. Merkin said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

To date, 12 states have passed legislation for medical marijuana. They are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and, most recently, New Mexico, which passed legislation last year.

However, the Marijuana Policy Project’s main focus is to convince the U.S. Congress to pass federal medical marijuana legislation.

Merkin defined medical marijuana as strictly used for medical purposes.

“We ought to be able to do something like the system in the Netherlands where people go to the pharmacy and get a prescription (for marijuana),” Merkin said. “Our national government won’t let us. It’s insane.

“People don’t realize that methamphetamine is a legal medicine. It’s not used that often, but it is available by prescription. There’s no reason that marijuana can’t be treated the same way.”

Merkin said about 9 percent of people who smoke marijuana become psychologically addicted.

“Some people do develop a dependence on marijuana, a mild dependence similar to caffeine, but much less than other drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes,” Merkin said.

Merkin conceded there can be some health risks associated with smoking marijuana.

“If you use it by smoking, there are certainly harmful effects of smoking,” he said.

However, inhaling the harmful smoke can be alleviated by using a vaporizer, he said.

Marijuana may not be good for some people with a history of mental illness, he added.

“Beyond that, it really is astonishingly safe. I wouldn’t say there’s zero risk, but, in the great scheme of things, it’s relatively mild,” he said.

“This is why the doctor needs to be involved. It’s not right for every patient.”