SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois lawmakers agreed to legalize the use of medical marijuana on Friday under a plan that's being billed as the strictest in the nation among states that have authorized the drug's medicinal use, though it was unclear whether the Democratic governor plans to sign it.
The plan authorizes a pilot program for physicians to prescribe marijuana only to patients with whom they have an existing relationship. Background checks are required, and patients must have at least one of more than three dozen terminal illnesses or other debilitating medical conditions specifically listed in the bill.
Gov. Pat Quinn has declined to say whether he supports the legislation, saying only that he was "open-minded" on the issue. Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, a former prosecutor, has said she is in favor of the plan after meeting with patients, including military veterans.
The proposed legislation creates a framework for a four-year pilot program that includes requiring patients and caregivers to undergo background checks. It sets a 2.5 ounce limit per patient per purchase and calls for 60 dispensaries regulated by the state where patients could buy the drug.
"We are embarking here on a way to achieve relief, compassionate relief, consistent with the law (with) a system which avoids abuse," said the bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Bill Haine of Alton. "It's the tightest, most controlled legislative initiative in the United State related to medical cannabis."
Supporters say it is a compassionate measure that could save patients from the agony caused by illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV. They argue that marijuana can relieve continual pain without triggering the harmful effects of other prescription drugs, including painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin.
But opponents contend the program could encourage the recreational use of marijuana, especially among teenagers.
A report issued last month by the Pew Research Center poll showed that 77 percent of Americans say marijuana has legitimate medical uses. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
But critics in the Illinois Senate, which approved the plan Friday in a 35-21 vote, worried about whether the regulations would be enough to prevent abuse of the drug.
"For every touching story that we have heard about the benefits of those in pain, I remind you today that there are a thousand times more parents who will never be relieved from the pain of losing a child due to addiction, which in many cases has started with the very illegal, FDA-unapproved, addiction-forming drug you are asking us to make a normal part of our communities," Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Republican from Lebanon, said ahead of the chamber's vote.
Under the bill, patients who are prescribed the drug would automatically consent to submit to a sobriety field test should a police officer suspect they were driving under the influence of the drug. But leading Illinois law enforcement organizations have opposed the legislation, saying the test cannot determine if a motorist is under the influence of marijuana. The groups say the test works only for alcohol.
Haine, however, said his measure is the strictest the General Assembly has considered on medical marijuana.
Haine and other supporters have advocated for the issue for several years. A measure that cleared the Senate failed in the House in 2011. The current version of the bill received the House's approval in April.