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Geneseo Republic - Geneseo, IL
  • Medical marijuana legalization effort ‘one or two’ votes short in Illinois House

  • SPRINGFIELD — Year after year, Ana DeVarose has watched Illinois lawmakers vote down legislation legalizing medical marijuana — legislation that could stop people from seeing her as a criminal. On Friday, state Rep. Lou Lang, said his latest proposal to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes is just “one or two” votes shy of approval in the House.
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  • Year after year, Ana DeVarose has watched Illinois lawmakers vote down legislation legalizing medical marijuana — legislation that could stop people from seeing her as a criminal.
    “It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. The whole purpose (of passing legislation) is to have patients like myself to have safe access to their medicine without risking arrest,” said DeVarose, 25, of Springfield, who has multiple sclerosis. “If I take my muscle relaxers, pain killers and antispasmodics, I’m not a criminal. And those things are poisoning my body.”
    DeVarose started showing symptoms of multiple sclerosis in 2008. She is among those living with chronic or dilapidating health conditions who believe they could get some relief by using medical marijuana, which is still illegal in Illinois and 31 other states.
    On Friday, state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, said his latest proposal to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes — House Bill 1 — is just “one or two” votes shy of approval in the House.
    ‘Almost crippling’
    When DeVarose was first diagnosed, she followed doctor’s orders and took injectable medications designed to slow the progression of MS. With that, however, came flu-like side effects — fevers, chills and muscle aches, she said.
    In 2011, she nearly died from one of the drugs and stopped taking the medication.
    “I decided then that was the last straw, that I’m not (subjecting) my body to this anymore. It’s just not normal,” she said.
    At any given time throughout the day, DeVarose said she can experience incredible pain caused by “muscle spasticity” — an unusual muscle tightness associated with MS.
    “It feels like there are corset strings being tightened just as tight as they can get. It’s almost crippling. When it gets out of control, all I can do is lay down,” DeVarose said. “Or I can take my muscle relaxers, which turns me into a zombie.”
    DeVarose lives with her grandparents, who both opposed marijuana use until she showed them the impact cannabis had on her symptoms.
    “I had gotten off of work one night, and I couldn’t control my tremors at all. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. My arms were jerking uncontrollably, and I sat down in front of (my grandmother) and  just told her, ‘Watch,’” DeVarose said.
    Page 2 of 3 - After she took one or two puffs, the tremors subsided within minutes, she said. Muscle relaxers can take up to 40 minutes to kick in, she said.
    ‘We’re very close’
    Though 18 other states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, DeVarose has watched multiple legislative efforts fail in Illinois. But this year may be different because the latest version provides more regulation, Lang said.
    “We’re very close....  If I would have had to take a vote (Friday), it would probably be one or two short. But we’re getting there,” Lang said.
    The proposal would create a four-year pilot program during which qualified patients could use up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana over a two-week period. The drug would be available only to people with specific medical conditions, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis or HIV/AIDS, and only if their doctors and the Department of Public Health approve.
    After four years, lawmakers would decide whether to make the law permanent, Lang said.
    He describes the proposal as the “most highly regulated piece of legislation ever written on the subject” in states that have adopted such measures. Opponents argue some loose ends remain.
    The 2.5 ounces allowed over a 14-day period equates to about 183 joints, or 13 per day, said Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems.
    “That’s a huge amount. If they don’t use it all, what are you going to do with it? Are they going to sell it? Give it to their friends?” she said.
    DeVarose said the numbers aren’t quite that simple.
    “If you have three patients lined up, we’d all three have different intakes on it. It takes me a very small amount,” DeVarose said. “For people living with a debilitating disease or have a chronic illness, they could obviously need more.”
    Police unconvinced
    Limey Nargelenas, a lobbyist for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said he’s pleased with some of the restrictions added to the legislation after extended negotiations, including prohibiting people from growing their own plants. But he still takes issue with provisions concerning highway safety.
    Studies examining the relationship between fatal crashes and marijuana use have had conflicting results, he said.
    “We already have enough problems trying to deal with DUIs,” Nargelenas said.
    Law enforcement also can’t determine immediately whether people have marijuana in their systems unless they admit it, he said, though blood tests can be done later. A mouth swab test is one fairly new method used to detect marijuana, he said.
    Page 3 of 3 - Under Lang’s bill, if drugs or alcohol is suspected, any motorist pulled over with a medical marijuana ID card would be subject to a field sobriety test, Nargelenas said. However, the bill exempts some individuals who are physically unable to perform such a test, which Nargelenas sees as a way around the law.
    Like many opponents, Nargelenas also thinks legalizing medical marijuana is “just a ruse” to legalize the drug for recreational use — something Colorado and Washington have already done.
    DeVarose disagrees.
    “This is about bettering quality of life,” she said. “This isn’t about getting high whatsoever.”
    Lang said the goal is to provide marijuana only to “very sick people.”
    “In the California experience, virtually anyone can go to any doctor and within five minutes get a prescription for medical marijuana,” Lang said. “(In Illinois), if you don’t have a bona fide relationship with that doctor that can be proven, you aren’t getting the product. We drafted the bill this way to address issues in California.”
    Lauren Leone-Cross can be reached at (217) 782-6292.

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