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Columnist
Timid politicians in smokescreen of medical marijuana
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 1/7/2010 12:01 AM

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Activists in Illinois have been fighting for years, even decades, to add marijuana to the arsenal of drugs available to help sick people. Considering that optimism for medical marijuana has been high every year since Richard Nixon was president, supporters need short-term memory loss just to give them the strength to continue banging their heads against the wall.

"It's like the 'Groundhog Day' movie," says Dan Linn, the 27-year-old Lake County native who serves as executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Every legislative session the bill gets introduced and doesn't do anything."

There is an easy explanation for that.

"I have to say it's just good, old-fashioned political fear," says state Rep. Lou Lang, the Skokie Democrat who is sponsoring the latest medical marijuana bill in the House. "It's all about politics. It's all about fear. It's all about living in the past."

When politicians tell Lang that they support the idea of legalizing marijuana for sick people but don't want to vote for it because "people will think I'm soft on crime," Lang responds, "What crime?"

"This isn't about drugs," says Lang, who adds that he's never smoked pot. "This is about health care."

Sponsoring the medical marijuana bill in the Senate is grandfather and Vietnam veteran William R. Haine, an Alton Democrat who served 14 years as Madison County's state's attorney. Even straight-laced Republican governor candidate Jim Ryan, who used to be the state's top law enforcement official, recently told The Associated Press that he could support marijuana for sick people who meet strict legal requirements.

A legal way to use marijuana would be welcome for Lisa Lange, a 54-year-old Lindenhurst mom who admits to being "a criminal" now. She uses marijuana to treat the muscle and bone ills she suffers from arthritis, joint replacements, spine fusions and the pain from tumors caused by Dercum's disease.

When Lange lobbied publicly for the pot she smokes in secret, her two kids, 18 and 23, "were shocked," Lange says. "I never do it in front of the kids."

Saying that she's responding to the "demonization" of pot, Lange notes that she keeps her marijuana locked in a safe. "But I don't lock up any of my other medicines," adds Lang, who credits marijuana for weaning her off narcotic painkillers and anti-depressants with serious side effects.

"I'm in better shape now than I've probably been in the last 25 or 30 years, and cannabis has a great deal to do with this," Lange says. "Cannabis is helping me regain my life."

Even if marijuana can help some people, it simply is too dangerous to be allowed as a medication, counters Judy Kreamer, 65, president of Educating Voices, a Naperville-based group that aims to help people "avoid the dangers and destruction of drugs through drug education, research, technical assistance, networking and Pray for the Children Drug-Free and Safe effort."

I think Kreamer, a Naperville grandmother, falls prey to unrealistic fears when she e-mails me stories supporting her assertions that medical marijuana would lead to growers causing deadly fires and mold, lowered property values and might even result in Mexican drug cartels using guns to break into suburban homes.

But Kreamer is correct about marijuana being more potent today and not going through the government-mandated screenings that FDA-approved drugs do. She's right about pot causing problems for some users, especially kids and teens. She's even right in her insistence that some people might abuse legal marijuana in the same way that some people currently obtain fraudulent prescriptions or otherwise bypass the laws for other legal drugs.

But banning marijuana from the assortment of drugs available for sick people obviously hasn't kept pot away from kids and other users now, Lang argues. The current law just punishes law-abiding sick people.

"If it's OK with the doctor and OK with the patient, legislators should respect that doctor-patient relationship," Linn says. "Republicans from the collar counties who support minimal government, the medical marijuana bill fits right into that."

Thirteen states allow medical marijuana now, another dozen have bills pending, and the U.S. attorney now discourages prosecutors from going after state-legal pot retailers. In November, the American Medical Association asked the federal government to reconsider the position of marijuana as a schedule one narcotic with "no accepted medical use."

Lang points to polls that show 68 percent of Illinois residents support medical marijuana. When it comes to society's view of pot, the times they are a-changin'. If he can just lock up the votes, Lang says this might be the year Illinois changes, too.