Senate OKs medical marijuana; McCarter recalls daughter's drug-related death

News-DemocratMay 17, 2013 

— Despite tearful opposition from a metro-east lawmaker, the Illinois Senate on Friday approved a bill allowing people to use marijuana to ease the pain of certain medical ailments.

The bill would create a four-year pilot program, under which patients with specified medical ailments, including cancer, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, could use marijuana if they get a doctor's permission.

The Senate voted 35-21 to pass the bill, despite opposition from Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, who talked about losing a child to drug addiction.

The bill, pushed by Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, had already cleared the House in April and now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn.

"Many physician groups support this," Haine said during floor debate on the bill. Haine said marijuana would give some relief from "the terrible pain suffered by people," and is "relatively benign" in comparison to other prescription painkillers.

McCarter said that while marijuana might help ease some people's pain, there are many parents who "will never be relieved from the pain of losing a child" to drug addiction.

"As one of those dads," McCarter said, pausing to compose himself, "I'd ask you to vote no."

About 250 Illinois doctors publicly supported the plan, saying medical use of marijuana can be safer and more effective than narcotic painkillers for some patients. Supporters said marijuana can relieve continual pain without triggering the harmful effects of other prescription drugs.

Haine, a former Madison County state's attorney, outlined a slew of regulations included in the proposal, which he said would give Illinois one of the most restrictive medical-marijuana laws in the nation.

A medical marijuana user suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana must submit to field-sobriety testing, otherwise his or her driver's license will be suspended. The driver's medical marijuana card would be revoked, too.

Opponents had questioned whether there would be a good way to determine whether a driver is impaired by marijuana, due to traces of the drug remaining in a person's system long after the impairment has worn off.

McCarter said police groups are opposed to the bill, and lawmakers should "take their opinion very seriously." McCarter also questioned whether any state agency would have the proficiency to regulate marijuana production, but Haine said he's confident the Department of Agriculture will "find the expertise."

The proposal prohibits patients from growing their own marijuana. Instead, the state must approve 22 cultivation centers, as well as 60 dispensaries where patients could buy the drug after getting a prescription from a doctor with whom they have an existing relationship. The legislation sets a 2.5-ounce limit per patient per purchase -- every 14 days.

"That's about 13 joints a day," McCarter said, adding that he fears medical use of marijuana will lead to increased recreational use of marijuana and other drugs.

McCarter's 21-year-old daughter, Amber McCarter, died in 2006. Her body was found on a railroad access road in Brooklyn, and authorities attributed her death to the use of fentanyl, a painkiller. She previously sought inpatient treatment for drug addiction.

Haine said marijuana is "relatively benign" compared to other prescription painkillers.

"Oxycontin is clearly more powerful and addictive than medical marijuana, and it's in millions of medical cabinets as we speak," Haine said.

Under the bill, patients with 38 specific types of ailments would be allowed to use marijuana.

Quinn has previously said he's "certainly open-minded" to signing the bill.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

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.

The bill is House Bill 1.

How senators from the metro-east voted:

* Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville: Yes

* Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton: Yes

* Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville: No

* Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon: No

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