Nearly 250 Illinois physicians put their names behind a proposal Tuesday that would legalize marijuana for patients with serious illnesses, hoping to give a boost to the legislation one day before an anticipated vote on the House floor.
Three of those doctors spoke at a news conference in Chicago, saying the drug can be a safer and more effective treatment than narcotics for patients with diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's disease and HIV.
They were joined by Julie Falco, a 47-year-old who has multiple sclerosis. Falco rose from her wheelchair with help from a fellow supporter to share the story of how marijuana helped ease pain and other symptoms so debilitating that she considered suicide. The narcotics she was prescribed made her feel worse, the Chicago woman said.
"You could be going through something, and would you not want to have that option? ... Wouldn't you want to try something instead of just going out without that option to have a better quality of life?" Falco said. "I beg you. Think about that."
The Illinois House is expected to vote Wednesday on a bill that would create a medical marijuana pilot program. It would allow physicians who have an existing relationship with a patient to prescribe marijuana for certain conditions.
Patients would be limited to buying 2.5 ounces at a time from dispensaries licensed and regulated by the state. They would be prohibited from growing their own marijuana, and both patients and caregivers would have to undergo a background check.
The vote in the House is expected to be close. If it passes, the legislation still must go to the Senate.
Gov. Pat Quinn said last week his staff members have been involved in drafting the bill but that he hasn't made a final decision on whether he would sign it. "We'll take a look at the final product," he said.
Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, and other supporters have been trying to legalize medical marijuana for several years. A measure passed the Senate in 2009 but fell short in the House, where just six Republicans voted "yes." No bill since then has made it to a floor vote in either chamber. Rep. Tom Demmer, a Republican from Dixon, said he has sympathy for patients who are seeking a remedy for medical problems. But he said he's worried about circumventing the Food and Drug Administration's approval process.
"If somebody came to the House and asked us to pass through a drug that hadn't gone through FDA certification, we wouldn't act on that," Demmer said.
Opponents also say they worry people who don't need the drug will find a way to obtain it, and that the legislation would open the door to further legalization of marijuana, as has occurred in places like Colorado.
Dan Riffle, deputy director of government operations for the Marijuana Policy Project, countered that the legislation is more restrictive than medical marijuana laws that exist in 18 other states.
But the bigger obstacle for supporters may be the political risks attached to the legislation, regardless of how restrictive it is or the fact Democrats now hold more seats in both chambers than they did during previous votes.
While several Democratic House members said this week the physicians' endorsement could win "yes" votes from undecided lawmakers, many said lawmakers who are on the fence may choose not to favor the bill out of fear that their potential challengers during the 2014 election could manipulate their vote. They said this vote could easily be misinterpreted to show lawmakers favoring the bill are endorsing all marijuana uses, not just its medical use.
Rep. Robert Pritchard, a Republican from Hinckley, voted "yes" in 2011 and plans to do so again. He said while the latest bill has more safeguards than previous measures, he doesn't believe it will get much more Republican support than it did before.
"Certainly, the legislature is different from what it was a few years ago when we voted on this, and in many respects, my side of the aisle is more conservative, is more law and order," Pritchard said.