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Article updated: 5/17/2013 4:30 PM

Lawmakers split as Senate OKs medical marijuana

By Mike Riopell

SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Pat Quinn will get the final say on whether Illinoisans should be allowed to use medical marijuana to help cope with pain and other symptoms caused by serious diseases.

The Illinois Senate approved the controversial proposal Friday after a lengthy debate over whether its tight controls would keep the drug out of recreational users' hands.

Under the proposal, patients would have to have one of more than 30 serious diseases to legally get marijuana in Illinois. A patient could have up to 2.5 ounces per week, and the drug would have to be prescribed by a doctor who has had an ongoing relationship with the patient.

Supporters say Illinois' would be the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia already have laws in place, allowing people suffering from sometimes terminal illnesses to find relief from pain and other symptoms of their diseases.

"This is about pain medication for people who are hurting," said state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat. "And, quite frankly, a lot of them are using it illegally."

The illnesses that would qualify someone for medical marijuana use include cancer, HIV and AIDS, Alzheimers and Parkinsons.

Critics, though, argue a medical marijuana law in Illinois would be gateway legislation that could lead to more sweeping legalization of the drug. And they worry that the controls aren't tight enough to keep marijuana out of the hands of people who don't have a medical reason to use it.

State Sen. Dan Duffy, a Barrington Republican, said he was initially conflicted on the issue, adding that he was sympathetic to cancer patients who want to use marijuana to deal with the effects of chemotherapy.

However, he said availability of pill forms of marijuana that can provide medical relief without feelings of euphoria and the opposition of law enforcement organizations are what led him to vote "no."

"Everyone from the DEA on the federal level to the state police and the chiefs of police association, none of the police departments supported this medical marijuana bill at all," Duffy said.

The Senate approved it by a 35-21 vote. Suburban lawmakers were split on the issue and not always along party lines. Suburban Republican Sens. Pam Althoff of McHenry and Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove voted for the plan, and Democratic Sen. Julie Morrison of Deerfield voted against it.

The legislation would allow for 60 marijuana dispensaries statewide and 22 growers. Marijuana use would be prohibited in public, in cars, around minors or at schools.

The law would be repealed automatically in four years, so lawmakers could let it lapse if they feel it hasn't worked. They would have to vote again to extend it.

First, though, Quinn would have to sign it into law in the coming months. A spokesman wouldn't say which way the governor is leaning.

"He will carefully review the bill when it reaches his desk," said Quinn spokesman Dave Blanchette.

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