A suburban Republican's change of heart -- driven by watching the suffering of a close friend -- has brought the Illinois House one step closer to legalizing medical marijuana.
House GOP Leader Tom Cross, of Oswego, worked with Skokie Democrat Lou Lang to amend current legislation that would allow people with serious medical conditions to use the controlled substance.
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That amendment was adopted Wednesday and legislation may come up for a vote as early as next week, according to Lang's office.
As a former prosecutor with a number of good friend in law enforcement, Cross said his initial reaction was to oppose the legislation.
However, after hearing from a number of constituents -- as well as witnessing a friend go through a difficult struggle with cancer, Cross said, "there's got to be a way to say to someone who's struggling, if this is the only thing that works, you ought to be able to utilize it."
Cross said he talked with members of the medical community and was "flat out told that there are situations where the only thing that works is medical marijuana."
Cross began working with Lang to make some changes to the legislation, which was four votes short of passage in the House during the January veto session.
Under the proposed law, patients could have 2.5 ounces of marijuana in their possession with a doctor's clearance.
The new version lists specific illnesses that would make someone eligible to use the substance -- AIDS, lupus, cancer, multiple sclerosis, among them.
It also does not allow people to grow marijuana in their own homes. It would be grown at 59 nonprofit sites, which the legislation refers to as "registered nonprofit medical cannabis organizations" throughout the state instead. Cross said the number of sites was purposely kept small.
The pilot program would expire after three years, upon which the General Assembly would have to vote to legalize it again.
Lang said he and Cross have worked together on legislation impacting those affected by diabetes and concussions.
When Cross approached him, he said he'd already been working on changes to the legislation. "This new General Assembly has 20 new members. I wanted to be able to say that I listened to their comments during the two floor debates that (we had on this issue), and make this the best, strongest, most controlled and regulated piece of legislation on this issue." Lang said.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.
Lang said Cross's public support of the legislation would help bring Republican votes forward.
"With Mr. Cross on board it gives Republicans carte blanche to say if our leader isn't concerned about the politics about it. we haven't been either."
Lang said he personally lobbied every member of the House on the legislation in January. While 56 voted in favor, he said, privately, 90 members expressed their support to him.
"It is my plan to take a vote on this bill next week if I think there's a chance to pass it," Lang said. "This is the kind of bill where there may be a half or dozen legislators say I may not be done thinking about it."