Here's an issue that will not appear on the ballot Tuesday as a referendum question but involves legislation that passed the Illinois Senate and stalled in the House: medical marijuana. Consider:
--An Illinois man in hospice care seven years ago now looks forward to walking his daughter down the aisle for her wedding. Diagnosed with six months or less to live for hospice care, he tried smoking marijuana. It relieved nausea and vomiting, as well as stimulated his appetite. He began to eat more and was able keep the food down. He regained his strength and stopped taking medications with awful side effects.
--A businessman moved to Canton from another state that had legalized marijuana for medical purposes. His wife uses cannabis for relief from Crohn's disease, and he uses it for cramps and anxiety. They thought Illinois would pass a law soon legalizing marijuana for medical purposes like 17 other states have done. They are still waiting.
--A reverend who formerly directed Protestants for a Common Good, a faith-based advocacy group for the legalization of medical marijuana in Illinois, notes a restrictive bill passed by the Illinois Senate over two years ago awaits House action. If nothing is done, House Bill 30 sunsets after three years. The faith-based group supports HB 30 as "a matter of compassion and mercy," he says.
Mike Graham, 50, of Mantino, Kankakee County, feels fortunate to be alive. The 6-foot, 4-inch salesman who acquired a number of Red Lobster franchises almost died over seven years ago. He was playing golf one day, and as he was swinging a club, he felt like he had just been struck by lightning. He learned he had a degenerative spine condition. During surgery, he had a heart attack.
He was left using a wheelchair and in excruciating pain. Things got worse. Due to side effects from medications he was taking, he says, he suffered two more heart attacks and a stroke. He became bedridden with a morphine pump attached to his body. He has no memory of his daughter's high school career and how she was named salutatorian.
His weight dropped to 130 pounds and his outlook was grim. He says his hospice nurse, a woman who reminded him of "Granny" on "The Beverly Hillbillies," recommended he get off the 14 prescribed medications he was taking "and find yourself some pot." He says he would have laughed, but he felt so sick.
Graham says he comes from three generations of police officers. His grandfather was a cop, and so was his father. He has an uncle who is a police officer as well. But he had watched his parents both die at early ages from cancer after going through chemotherapy and side effects of drugs to treat the disease. His mother died at age 52 and his father at 44. They would never consider using cannabis since it was illegal. But Graham says he wanted to be around for his children.
Page 2 of 4 - "I wanted to enjoy my kids. My hope is to walk my 17-year-old daughter down the aisle someday," he says.
So he took the hospice nurse's advice. He obtained some cannabis and took three or four puffs of it off a vaporizer. A short time later, he ate half of a cookie. He turned the vaporizer back on and made himself a pot of coffee. The cannabis took away his chronic pain and nausea. Six months later, his condition had markedly improved. Now he weighs 250 pounds. It was amazing, he says. "I was a vegetable."
Graham says after he started feeling better, he began studying the history of marijuana and prohibitions against it. He notes it is now scheduled as a hard drug by the federal government, akin to heroin and cocaine, although there are efforts to reclassify it as milder substance federally.
Graham says he does not want children having access to cannabis, but those with chronic pain and nausea should have it. He says the federal government may relax restrictions on cannabis if enough states take initiatives to show the way and provide political support. He adds HB 30 in Illinois as proposed is "night and day away from California and Colorado" laws and should provide the model for medical marijuana laws in the U.S.
The proposed law in the Land of Lincoln would allow only one medical marijuana dispensary per Senate district, with a maximum of 59 throughout the state. No dispensary may be within 2,500 feet of a school, park, church or day care center. Cannabis only may be prescribed for specific medical conditions, and the law would protect the doctor-patient relationship, Graham says.
"This is such a quality-of-life issue. So many patients would benefit," he says. "It's not the hippie thing of the '60s"
He adds it could be taxed and regulated, pointing out medical marijuana is a $2 billion business in California although there are no controls on the number of dispensaries there.
Graham says the 14 pharmaceuticals he had been taking in the past were costing $100,000 a year. It flushed his insurance out, so he became a Medicaid patient. He says drug costs are even higher for multiple sclerosis patients. He adds MS patients get better results from pot, and persons with Parkinson's disease use it as well. "Everybody knows somebody who could benefit," he says.
He stresses he does not advocate the use of cannabis by youth at all. The biggest problem for kids now is pharmaceutical abuse -- children getting into the drug cabinet and trying things, as well as older kids having parties with bowlfuls of pills.
It's about education, he says. He adds children in DARE classes should be told the truth. When told all drugs will kill them but they find that is not true, they may think all drugs are okay and get into big trouble.
Page 3 of 4 - What about all that money being spent on pharmaceutical medications? It the drug lobby opposed to relaxing laws against marijuana?
Graham says he has not heard of any opposition from the industry. He adds he met Walgreen's family members who would like to see marijuana rescheduled by the federal government. He says pharmacies "would get into it tomorrow," so the drug industry could profit through legal medical marijuana.
He also says changing the law would not take jobs away from police. There still would be people to arrest for offenses. "You just don't want patients in jail," he says.
Graham says he was bedridden and it has taken almost seven years to recover to the point where he is now. During a telephone interview with him, one would have assumed he was in a wheelchair, but he says he walks every day.
"I walk with a cane, but I'm able to get up and move and enjoy my kids' lives. I go to teachers' conferences. I look forward to them. I quit smoking; I haven't used tobacco in three years. My health's getting better. A lot of education is needed," Graham says.
The Canton businessman declined to give his last name or phone number and later called to ask if any of his comments would appear in this story. He had discussed the difficulty of obtaining cannabis as an illegal substance. He also said a group called the Canton Cannabis Club had been started to educate people not to get high on marijuana but to contact their state legislators to urge support for passage of HB 30. He said the bill needed 60 votes to pass and came only a few votes short of that in the last legislative session.
He also said he knew of police officers who favor a change and formed a group is called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Numerous other organizations also seek change. For example, he said marijuana should not be in the same category as heroin and cocaine. "You can't OD (overdose) on marijuana, sir," he said.
The businessman said he would like to get people talking about medical marijuana. He noted it has helped his wife deal with Crohn's disease, a gastrointestinal disorder, and it has helped him as well. "It's not a bad thing. I've seen how it's helped people. I'd like to see Illinois become the 18th state to make it legal," he said.
The Rev. Al Sharp is the ex-director emeritus of Protestants for a Common Good, a faith-based group working for marijuana law reform in Illinois and throughout the Midwest. He called the Daily Ledger from Chicago and says Graham's exit from hospice care to a better quality of life was not an aberration. Many have benefited from using cannabis in place of heavy pain killers and the side effects, addiction and memory loss they can cause.
Page 4 of 4 - Sharp estimates 10,000 people in Illinois with chronic pain could get relief with cannabis. He says the faith-based group got involved with reform efforts about three or four years ago. Since then, Senate Bill 30 was passed. It is the most tightly restricted legislation proposed for medical marijuana in the nation. The Chicago Tribune, considered a conservative newspaper, said it was model legislation. It was endorsed by House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) and was not easy to get through the Republican caucus. Cross had met Mike Graham and other patients, says Sharp.
The bill would limit use of medical marijuana primarily to six specific conditions: cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Crohn's, ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and Alzheimer's disease. A few other disorders also apply, Sharp says.
To obtain a prescription for medical cannabis, the patient must have a letter from a doctor and the Illinois Department of Public Health indicating the doctor has had an ongoing relationship with the patient and all other remedies have been exhausted. Patients may not grow their own marijuana, and no more than one dispensary per Senate district is allowed. A patient may not have more than 2.5 ounces of cannabis during any 14-day period. Patients also must have registered identification cards which are overseen by the Department of Public Health. Also, there is a $20,000 registration fee for successful applicants to operate a dispensary plus a $5,000 fee to open a dispensary.
It would be a pilot program for three years, requiring reauthorization to continue further. Sharp says the measure came within three votes of passing the House in the past.
What about federal laws against marijuana?
Sharp says any social reform happens in the states before the federal government. Child labor laws and Workman's Compensation changed at the state level before the federal level. Medical marijuana is no different.
Why does the faith-based organization support HB 30?
"It is a matter of compassion and mercy," Sharp says. "Imagine pain never going away. Even if it is for only a few people, it should be done. A significant number of people want to know how to get through the day."
He adds this is a chance for those suffering from pain and frequent vomiting to alleviate such problems. It is frustrating they cannot get relief another way. Pain pills may cause vomiting, and Graham used cannabis before receiving morphine. It was an Episcopal nun who suggested he try cannabis, Sharp says.
He says patients like Graham are not "stumbling" to cannabis, they are "driven to it when nothing else helps them."
If HB 30 passes without changes, it will go to the governor for his signature. If it is amended in the House and passes, it will go back to the Senate for efforts to reconcile it.