A swing in public attitudes about marijuana could lead to passage this year of an Illinois law allowing medical use of the drug, according to proponents.
A vote in the Illinois House is expected this week on House Bill 1, a bill that would create a four-year pilot program through which patients suffering certain ailments could use marijuana. If approved, it then would go to the Senate, which approved such a measure once before.
The bill's opponents include the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. The group's director, John H. Kennedy, said officers are concerned about users driving under the influence and the amount of marijuana people would be allowed to possess.
Nineteen states have legalized the medical use of marijuana.
The timing couldn't be much better for supporters. Just this month, a new Pew Research Center poll found that, for the first time, a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- favors the outright legalization of marijuana, not just medical use.
In February, a poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found that 63.3 percent of Illinoisans either strongly favor or favor legalizing the medical use of marijuana. Only 32.1 percent of respondents in the Illinois poll said they strongly oppose or oppose legalizing marijuana for medical use.
And in December, a CBS News poll found that 83 percent of Americans support legalizing the medical use of pot.
"I don't know if baseball and apple pie have 83 percent," said Dan Riffle, deputy director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalization.
Previous attempts in the House at passing a medical marijuana law failed, but Riffle thinks the chances for passage this year are improved because the House now has more Democrats.
"For whatever reason, Democrats seem to support this more than Republicans," he said. That's somewhat ironic, Riffle said, because Republicans would presumably favor government getting out of the way and "leaving this up to doctors, to determine how to treat patients."
The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, said last week that he thinks he has enough votes for House passage. In 2011, Lang's medical marijuana bill failed 53-61 in the House.
The current bill's Senate sponsor is Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, who said he never predicts whether a bill will pass or fail. But he noted the Senate passed a medical marijuana bill two years ago, and said this version has even more restrictions.
"This bill is much narrower than before," Haine said. "I think there's a lot of public support for it."
He added: "The opposition to it, quite frankly, is from those who just don't want to say anything good about marijuana. I understand that, but I think we have to move beyond that. It's a substance which has been abused in the past, but it's arguably not been abused as badly as alcohol."
Haine, who was elected four times as Madison County state's attorney before becoming a senator, said he can't recall a single case where someone died from an overdose of marijuana.
"But I know people have died through excessive consumption of alcohol or prescription drugs or heroin or morphine or similar things," he said.
Haine also noted the changing public opinion on pot.
"People no longer see it as this terrible thing on a par with cocaine, heroin or even the painkillers that are prescribed and sold by pharmacies," he said.
Riffle noted that the bill lists a set of ailments and diseases for which a person could receive a medical marijuana card. They include cancer, HIV, Crohn's disease, fibrous dysplasia, Parkinson's, lupus, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. Patients use marijuana to relieve pain and nausea where pills and other medications are ineffective.
"It's a very exclusive club," Riffle said, "and not one you want to be a member of."
Kennedy, of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, outlined reasons why the group opposes the bill:
* The amount each patient would be allowed to receive, 2.5 ounces every 14 days. He said that equates to about 183 joints, or 13 per day.
"Even the most experienced marijuana drug user smokes on average only three to four joints a day. This would leave roughly 135 joints to sell or share," he said.
* The number of background checks required for the patients, caregivers and workers at dispensaries and growing centers. Kennedy said Colorado at one point was receiving 1,000 applications per day for background checks. Based on population, Illinois could expect to receive more than 1,900 applications per day, he said.
The Illinois State Police, which would be required to conduct the background checks, "can't keep up with firearm card applications now, let alone this and the upcoming concealed-carry law," Kennedy said.
* Impaired driving. Kennedy said a marijuana patient would be allowed to drive with marijuana in his or her system as long as the patient is not determined to be "impaired."
With alcohol, there are objective, scientific tests that can determine if a person is impaired at a given time. There's no such testing with marijuana, because traces of the drug remain in the system long after the impairment wears off.
But Haine said the bill has a safeguard against impaired driving: Any medical marijuana user who is suspected of impaired driving must submit to field sobriety tests. If the driver refuses, his or her driver's license will be suspended, and his or her marijuana card will be revoked.
The stand-on-one-foot and the touch-your-nose tests arguably aren't as persuasive with a jury as blood or breath tests for alcohol. But Haine said the same problem exists with trying to determine if a motorist is impaired by other drugs, including prescription painkillers.
"If there was some litmus test similar to 0.08 percent blood-alcohol, I'd be open to it," he said. "But this gives the officer tremendous power and authority to determine impairment."
Riffle added that police nowadays are highly trained in how to determine if a motorist is impaired, and many of them have squad cars equipped with video cameras, which can provide visual evidence of impairment.
As for the possibility of patients selling marijuana, the bill states that any caught selling will have his or her marijuana card revoked.
Haine said the bill requires that the doctor and patient have an established relationship. "It can't be a shop-a-doc. It's got to be a doctor with a doctor-patient relationship with the person," he said.
In 2011, the only House member from the metro-east who voted in favor of medical marijuana was Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis.
Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville, said although he voted in opposition in the past, he's undecided on the current bill, which he described as "much, much different" from previous bills on the issue.
"It's way more strict than other states, I do know that. But there's been some concern raised to me that I'm still looking at regarding DUI," Hoffman said. "I understand the terrible pain that people go through, but at the same time, I want to make sure that the possibility for abuse is very minimal."
Last week, people who use marijuana for medical reasons visited the Capitol and lobbied lawmakers. Jessica Bauer, a 27-year-old from Rockford who has pancreatic cancer, said she got no relief from medicines she was given for her nausea, pain, headaches and lack of appetite. But marijuana helped her regain weight and energy.
"I can actually go and play in the park with my 5-year-old daughter for 15, 20 minutes before I get tired," Bauer said. "It's a big step for me."
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2511.