Illinois became the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana Thursday, joining Michigan as the second of Wisconsin’s neighboring states to do so.
Patients seeking treatment still face an uphill battle to make the drug legal for medicinal purposes in Wisconsin, but that’s not stopping several state Democrats from trying.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, are co-sponsoring a bill that Taylor said is still in the drafting phase and should be ready to introduce in the fall legislative session.
Under the bill, medicinal marijuana could be prescribed to patients with cancer, glaucoma, AIDS-HIV, post traumatic stress disorder, seizures, severe pain and nausea, and muscle spasms.
Taylor said the bill would allow patients to grow up to 10 marijuana plants and have up to 3 ounces in their possession. Patients who choose not to grow their own would be able to purchase medicinal marijuana with a doctor’s prescription at state-regulated, non-profit “compassionate care centers.”
“It would be fairly tightly controlled,” Taylor said. “Given that, I would hope some Republicans would support this.”
But it wasn't Republicans alone that held up the last effort by lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana.
Democrats were in control of the legislature and the governor’s office in 2009 when Erpenbach and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (then a state representative) co-sponsored a bill that led to public hearings but was never voted out of committee.
The public hearings were well attended by many people who said they needed to use marijuana for medical reasons to increase their appetite after certain cancer treatments, for example, or provide pain relief.
Marijuana is not only smoked by patients but can be used as a salve and rubbed on the skin to relieve pain.
Gary Storck, co-founder of Is My Medicine Legal Yet?, testified at the hearings. He said Thursday that Republicans are “very hostile” to medicinal marijuana and marijuana use, in general.
Storck pointed to a bill introduced by Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt and Sen. Rick Gudex, both Fond du Lac Republicans, that would allow local and county governments to pursue marijuana possession cases that have been dropped by prosecutors.
Because of dwindling resources, many district attorneys have quit prosecuting simple possession cases of less than 25 grams. Former Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, for example, established that policy in Dane County in 2007, according to a Cap Times article.
“Wisconsin is not only behind the curve, we are moving farther backwards,” Storck said.
Unlike the bill Taylor and Erpenbach are drafting, the bill signed into law Thursday by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn does not allow patients or caregivers to grow their own marijuana. Instead, the medicinal marijuana will be grown at sites throughout the state and sold at dispensaries.
According to an Associated Press story, Quinn touted the bill, which allows for a 4-year-long pilot program, as one of the nation’s toughest. Quinn also said the medicine was necessary for military veterans and the chronically ill.
Because patients can’t grow it themselves, Storck predicted it would be at least a year and more likely two years before the drug would actually be available to people in Illinois.
Regulating the marijuana dispensaries is a divisive aspect of the argument over medical pot. Of the 19 states and Washington D.C. that allow for the use of medical marijuana, roughly half require patients to purchase the drug from a dispensary and make it illegal for them to grow it themselves.
This battle made its way to the Michigan Supreme Court earlier this year when the court ruled marijuana dispensaries had no legal grounds to operate in the state. This ruling resulted in all but a few dispensaries shutting down, according to a recent report by Michigan Public Radio.
Now lawmakers are discussing a bill that would regulate and legalize dispensaries.
“I definitely feel that, as Republicans, we’re not going to survive unless we adequately address contemporary issues like medical marijuana,” Michigan Rep. Mike Calton, of Barry County, told Michigan Public Radio.
Groups dedicated to legalizing marijuana are throwing their weight behind the cause in hopes lawmakers will see the potential economic benefits tied to the medical marijuana industry, according to a Detroit Free Press story.
In Michigan, there are 130,000 registered users of medical marijuana and 30,000 caregivers, prompting advocates to say they hope their economic argument gets traction among those willing to put jobs and the state economy ahead of moral arguments about drug use, according to the article.
“I do think this is a bill that the public is ahead of the policy makers on,” Taylor said. “Everybody has known someone with a debilitating disease. Medical marijuana could be a remedy for their suffering and you can’t (legally) give it to them right now.”