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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 12:02 pm

Going to pot

Illinois a battleground for medical marijuana

While voters in two states have legalized marijuana for anyone over 21, Illinois legislators may take a key vote on a much stricter measure that would allow for medical use of marijuana in the land of Lincoln.

It’s a proposal that’s floated around the Capitol for years. The Senate in 2009 approved a bill that failed in the House two years later by four votes. Now, proponents are back, and in full force, with national players sending troops to Springfield to lobby legislators.

Illinois, it seems, has become a battleground state for marijuana activists.

“Big states create big news,” said Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project who was sent from Washington, D.C., to twist arms. “We’re trying to put a lot of pressure on the federal government to correct a failed policy.”

The measure now before the House is considerably stricter than the previous proposal. Medical marijuana would have to be purchased from a nonprofit dispensary, and dispensaries could not make campaign contributions to candidates and causes. The nonprofit dispensaries would have to pay a nonrefundable $5,000 application fee to get a license from the state Department of Public Health, which would charge an additional $20,000 to applicants deemed worthy before they could sell pot.

Patients could possess up to 2 ½ ounces of pot and would not be allowed to drive within 12 hours of consumption. Riffle said major differences between the current proposal and the one that failed the House by four votes in 2011 include a requirement that the doctor who is the treating physician for the underlying ailment must be the one to recommend marijuana to treat that ailment, and the doctor-patient relationship must be a longstanding one. In addition, marijuana would not be allowed if the underlying ailment is chronic pain, and patients would not be allowed to grow their own marijuana.

The changes are designed to address concerns that marijuana outlets in Illinois would become de facto drug-dealing operations for people who would shop for doctors willing to OK use of the drug on flimsy grounds.

Although the Marijuana Policy Project celebrated legalization in Washington and Colorado, proclaiming those states to have “the best marijuana laws in the world” on the organization’s website, Riffle said that the move to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Illinois is not about making the drug legal for everyone.

“There are always going to be folks who think this is the first step,” Riffle said. “This is not about legalizing marijuana. It’s about patients.”

Just how marijuana would get to patients without anyone breaking any laws is not clear. Irv Rosenfeld, a Fort Lauderdale resident who came to Springfield last week to lobby legislators, gets his from the government.

Rosenfeld, who has a bone disorder, is one of four people in the United States who have the authority to smoke pot anywhere. He’s been smoking pot legally for 30 years under a federal medical marijuana program that was shut down in the early 1990s.

Because selling marijuana is illegal, Rosenfeld does not have to pay for his pot, which is grown at the University of Mississippi, then sent to North Carolina for rolling. The federal government sends him shipments of six tins, each with 300 joints, and he smokes 10 joints a day. He says he doesn’t get high.

“Your tax money and my tax money pays for it,” he said. “I have to pay the pharmacy for labeling the bags and the tins. I do have to go to a doctor twice a year, so I have to pay him.”

Rosenfeld, who works as a financial adviser, said that marijuana reduces his need for Dilaudid, a powerful and addictive painkiller. He said that he and others who need marijuana for medical conditions would be happy to pay for it themselves.

“All I care about is getting medicine in the hands of patients,” Rosenfeld said. “I know what it’s done for my life. I want that for others.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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