Support for medical marijuana has grown significantly in recent years as 18 states and the District of Columbia have now legalized it for patients suffering from serious illnesses. According to a CBS News poll conducted in November, 83 percent of Americans favor allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients afflicted by debilitating diseases.
In Illinois, state lawmakers are considering bipartisan legislation – House Bill 1 – that would allow for medical marijuana use by qualified patients. There is ample scientific evidence indicating that marijuana can provide relief from continual pain, nausea and discomfort more effectively than conventional medications for patients suffering from serious ailments, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and HIV.
The proposed legislation does not amount to a reckless full-scale legalization of marijuana. If states have learned anything since California approved the use of medical marijuana in 1996, it’s that medicinal marijuana programs must be closely monitored, tightly regulated and authorized for genuinely medical purposes.
“Hands off” policies in other states have resulted in a proliferation of thousands of ubiquitous and problematic storefront medical marijuana dispensaries. In states like California and Colorado, consumers have found ways to gain legal access to marijuana for recreational use instead of legitimate medical illnesses. These practices have often resulted in patients – many of whom have been prescribed medical marijuana for illegitimate aliments – buying large quantities of marijuana and selling it on the streets or black market, adding to criminal activity and endangering neighborhoods and communities.
Under the proposed four-year pilot program, Illinois patients would be prohibited from growing their own marijuana and would be limited in the amount of marijuana they could receive. Qualified patients would have to receive certification from their own physician with whom they have a “bona fide” physician-patient relationship.
The physician must attest that the patient is suffering from a specified illness or condition, defined in the legislation, and would receive therapeutic benefit with treatment. The patient’s medical history would be turned over to the Illinois Department of Public Health, which would issue the patient an ID card, only if it verifies the information. All patients and caregivers would have to submit to background checks and convicted felons would be prohibited from obtaining an ID card.
The ID card would allow the patient, or licensed caregiver, to purchase a limited amount per month from one of up to 60 state-licensed dispensaries, or medical marijuana outlets, dispersed throughout the state.
It would also: limit a dispensary’s location to certain industrial and commercial zones; prohibit them near schools, playgrounds, parks, libraries, churches, and other dispensaries; regulate hours and security, equipping them with 24/7 surveillance cameras; and prohibit on-site medical consultations. The state would track sales to monitor who’s buying medical marijuana and how much and oversee how much marijuana physicians recommend to their patients.
Up to 22 competing state-licensed cultivation centers operating separately from the dispensaries would grow marijuana and distribute an affordable product to the dispensaries. These secure facilities would be monitored with 24/7 cameras and grow only a specific number of strains to ensure patient safety and quality that law enforcement could easily track and determine if it was prescribed for medical use. The state would require the cultivation centers to employ state-of-the-art testing methods to produce controlled quality-controlled marijuana and cultivated to most effectively treat specific illnesses. All products would be tested and labeled accordingly, listing the active ingredients and their amounts to ensure safe dosage.
By monitoring sales and implementing effective regulations and controls, Illinois can serve as a national model for other states to follow. It can also avoid the problems other states have experienced with federal law enforcement authorities who have shuttered cultivation centers and dispensaries due to a lack of oversight. Licensing fees collected from the cultivation centers and dispensaries would provide revenue to the state and help offset regulatory and law enforcement costs and finance effective anti-drug campaigns.
Medical marijuana isn’t as much an issue of law and order as it is of basic human rights. But patients using medical marijuana should not be treated any differently from those who use prescription drugs obtained from a pharmacy. Providing for high standards, stringent security measures and regulatory oversight is preferable to having medical marijuana patients continue to obtain the drug illegally.
Together, these polices recognize public will, the safety concerns of our communities and above all else, the needs of those suffering Illinois residents for whom marijuana is the best medicine in providing relief to help them manage untreatable pain in their daily lives.
• State Rep. Lou Lang is a Skokie Democrat representing Illinois’ 16th state House District. State Sen. Bill Haine is an Alton Democrat representing Illinois’ 56th state Senate District.