Two Steps Backward, No Steps Forward in Illinois: No to Hemp, Yes to Draconian Ecstasy Penalties 8/10/01

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Last week, Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have authorized research on possible hemp production in the state. Days later, he signed into law an anti-Ecstasy bill that will make Illinois' law one of the harshest in the nation.

The hemp bill, which twice passed both houses of the state legislature, would have provided for five years of privately funded research into hemp as an agricultural crop, with the end goal of eventually legalizing hemp production in the state.

While paying lip service to the good intentions of the hemp bill's sponsors and backers, Ryan's veto message played to a presumed drug war audience. "This legislation nonetheless plays into the national strategy of groups seeking to remove existing criminal penalties for cannabis/marijuana possession and use," he wrote.

In February, Ryan had vetoed an earlier version of the hemp bill, saying he had concerns about problems for law enforcement and doubts about whether hemp could be a viable crop for Illinois farmers. After that veto, hemp bill sponsors rewrote the bill to address law enforcement concerns, but that still wasn't good enough for Ryan.

"Everybody seemed to miss the point of this whole thing," Illinois farmer and industrial hemp supporter Gary Knecht told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I find it disappointing that in today's world, we can be against research. We're going backward."

State Sen. Evelyn Bowles (D-Edwardsville), who sponsored the senate version of the bill, vowed over the weekend to override the governor's veto. She told the Alton Telegraph she would do "everything I can to work for an override. I feel like we need to do this study," she said. "Why continue to not know? That bothers me, to not want to know. I want to know things." She told the local paper she would work with the house bill's sponsor, Rep. Ron Lawfer (R-Stockton) to organize an override attempt.

It will be a close battle. To override a governor's veto, a three-fifth's majority in both houses must vote in favor of the bill. The bill got 67% support in the senate and 62.6% in the house. "If we can hold those people and maybe even a few extras, I think we can do it," Bowles said.

If Ryan couldn't stomach the idea of hemp research, he was certainly happy to sign on to what could be the nation's harshest Ecstasy penalties. Under the new law, which will take effect on January 1, persons possessing as few as 15 Ecstasy tablets will face a mandatory minimum six-year prison sentence. Under current law, persons possessing up to 900 Ecstasy tablets were eligible for probation. The new law brings Ecstasy and other "club drug" punishments in line with those currently reserved for serious drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The new law also contains provisions allowing authorities to charge Ecstasy dealers with "drug-induced homicide" if someone dies after ingesting the drug.

The latest example in the trend of passing legislation on the basis of rare but highly-publicized cases, the law is also known as "Kelley's Law," named after Kelley McEnery Baker who died after taking Ecstasy in 1999. Baker died in New Jersey, not Illinois, but that did not stop her parents, who are Illinois residents, from pushing for a new law there, nor did it stop Illinois politicians from climbing on board.

"This bill strengthens the penalties for people who give drugs to our kids," Gov. Ryan said at the signing ceremony. "It's one that is overdue, and one that I hope will serve notice to dealers -- that you will be punished severely if you hurt children with your drugs."

Ryan called Ecstasy "a dangerous drug that kills." Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), the bill's senate sponsor also hammered home the Ecstasy fatality theme. "People think that because there's a cutesy name like Ecstasy that the drug somehow is not as dangerous as heroin, cocaine, and LSD, but the number of deaths recently show it absolutely is as dangerous," he said at the signing ceremony.

Politically-driven hyperbole notwithstanding, the number of Ecstasy deaths in Illinois is minimal. The Illinois Department of Public Health's Center for Health Statistics could not come up with any hard numbers, nor could the governor's office, nor could the Dept. of Public Safety. One death commonly referred to as an "Ecstasy overdose," that of 20-year-old Ohio resident James Roberts, occurred following his ingestion in March of both Ecstasy and ketamine, a powerful animal tranquilizer. Two other deaths in suburban Chicago last summer which helped to fuel the anti-Ecstasy frenzy were actually caused by another drug, PMA, which was fraudulently sold as Ecstasy. While the number of Ecstasy deaths in Illinois in recent years must hover in or near the single digits -- inferring from the most recent data (1998) which placed annual deaths nationally from Ecstasy in the single digits -- the number of people who have died in Chicago from the recent heat wave is 21.

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Issue #198, 8/10/01 Editorial: Nostalgia for the '80s | With National Drug Treatment Binge Looming, Survivors Conference in Suburban DC Targets Abusive Programs | Court Ruling Brings New York City Needle Exchange Suit a Step Closer to Class Action Status | Two Steps Backward, No Steps Forward in Illinois: No to Hemp, Yes to Draconian Ecstasy Penalties | Canadian Health Minister Has "Open Mind" on Marijuana Legalization | Reams Reeferendum Underway in Virginia, Libertarian Candidate Enters Lt. Governor Race to Push Marijuana Reform | Hawaii Pays Hemp Advocates $75,000 in Persecution Settlement | Reformer Profile: Ethan Nadelmann | T-shirts for Victory! Special New Offer and Appeal from DRCNet This Month | Media Scan: Major Dan Forbes/ Scoop, National Review, OC Register, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Economist | Resources: Andean Regional Initiative, Salvia Divinorum, Australian National Crime Authority | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | HEA Campaign Still Seeking Student Victim Cases -- New York Metropolitan Area Especially Urgent | The Reformer's Calendar
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