Illinois became the 20th state in the nation to allow the medical use of marijuana Thursday, with Gov. Pat Quinn signing some of the nation's toughest standards into law.
The measure, which takes effect Jan. 1, sets up a four-year pilot program for state-regulated dispensaries and 22 so-called cultivation centers, where the plants will be grown.
Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, focused his remarks on how medical marijuana will help seriously ill patients, including veterans, which have been a key focus during his time in office. He also played up Illinois' standards.
"It's important we do whatever we can to help ease their pain," Quinn said Thursday at a new medical facility at the University of Chicago. "The reason I'm signing the bill is because it is so tightly and properly drafted."
Under the measure, only patients with serious illnesses or diseases will be allowed to obtain medical marijuana. The bill lists more than 30, such as cancer, muscular dystrophy and lupus. The patients must have established relationships with a doctor and will be limited to 2.5 ounces every two weeks.
Currently, 19 other states and Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a medical marijuana bill into law last week.
Illinois' rules are among some of the strictest in the nation, according to Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project. The Washington-D.C. based legalization advocacy group tracks state laws and helps some craft bills.
For one, Illinois won't allow home growing operations like more than a dozen other states do. The growing centers will have to be under 24-hour video surveillance, which is uncommon compared to other states. O'Keefe said most states also have more general guidelines on who can obtain medical marijuana.
Also, there's no reciprocity: Those who obtain medical marijuana legally in other states won't be allowed to get it in Illinois.
Legalizing medical marijuana faced some opposition in Illinois, mainly from opponents who feared it would encourage drug use and authorities who feared it would complicate driving-under-the-influence tests. Some anti-crime groups also objected to the 2.5-ounce amount, which they said was too much.
State Rep. Lou Lang, a bill sponsor, dismissed the concerns, saying it would be difficult to obtain the drug for anyone who didn't need it. He said he was motivated to take up the issue after hearing from patients, and noted the new law would allow them a safe way to obtain relief.
"Are we really going to be a state where we're going to allow a 75-year-old granny with colon cancer to have to search for a remedy for her pain and her nausea? I don't think that's the kind of state we want to be," Lang, a Skokie Democrat said at the news conference.
He has also said that the 2.5-ounce amount is to accommodate patients who ingest, not smoke, it, such as in baked goods.
Army veteran Jim Champion was at Thursday's news conference, along with several other people who've dealt with chronic pain. Champion, 46, has suffered from a progressive form of multiple sclerosis for 25 years, leaving him a quadriplegic.
At one time, he was taking nearly 60 pills a day, including morphine and Valium. But he said marijuana -- which his wife obtained illegally -- was the only thing that gave him relief from chronic and constant pain. He now takes about two dozen pills a day.
Champion, who has lobbied state lawmakers on the issue, said he felt vindicated.
"Now, we're going to be offered a safer and more effective alternative to pain and spasm relief than the pharmaceuticals that we've been given by the bucket loads in the past," he said. "I've always been ashamed that I was criminalized by the actions that I was forced to take for my pain relief."