A bruising battle over medical marijuana legislation in the Illinois House took a surprise -- and disappointing -- turn Thursday as John Walters, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, swooped into Springfield to persuade members of a committee considering the bill to vote against it. The Thursday hearing and vote are only a temporary setback for medical marijuana patients and their supporters, however, since the same committee will have a chance to vote again on the measure later this session.
The campaign to pass a medical marijuana bill in Illinois has already been remarkable for the mobilization of forces on both sides of the issue. Spearheaded in-state by Illinois Drug Education and Legislative Reform, which has enlisted an impressive array of state medical groups behind the measure, the effort is also being supported by the Marijuana Policy Project, which has brought television talk show host and medical marijuana user Montel Williams on board on the bill's behalf.
Opposition to the measure has been equally active, led by drug czar Walters' former deputy, Andrea Barthwell. In a series of speaking engagements across the state in the last two months, Barthwell has made the usual arguments against medical marijuana, including describing the effort as a "hoax" perpetrated by "drug legalizers." Aided and abetted by a coterie of professional drug warriors, including former DEA head Peter Bensinger and Educating Voices leader Judy Kramer (the newsletter is a publication of the prohibitionist Drug Prevention Network of the Americas, Barthwell has been the public face of opposition to the bill. It is also opposed by law enforcement groups, such as the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs. But as Walters' surprise appearance at Thursday's hearing indicates, opposition to the measure is coming straight out of the White House as well.
The bill in question, House Bill 407, the Illinois Medical Cannabis Act, was introduced by Chicago Democrat Rep. Larry McKeon, an HIV sufferer, and would allow people with debilitating diseases such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and chronic pain to legally possess up to two and a half ounces of marijuana and up to 12 cannabis plants. Patients would have to register with the Illinois Department of Health to obtain an ID card that would exempt them from arrest and prosecution. The bill would also allow for designated caregivers to grow marijuana for patients who are unable to do so.
For McKeon and co-sponsor Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago), the bill is all about getting medicine to patients. "Through the grace of God and modern chemistry I'm doing fairly well," McKeon told the Moline Dispatch last weekend. "I don't know if my health was to progress to cancer or (something else) what I would do, but I'd like to have the opportunity without being criminalized in the process."
"This is a health-care bill. It's not a law-enforcement bill. It's not a drug bill," added Fritchey. "This is a bill that is about compassion and a recognition that traditional medicines don't always work in all circumstances."
Bill supporters were confident of a favorable vote earlier this week. "We're expecting a vote this week and we're expecting to win," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken Wednesday.
"We are very confident we can get this passed," said IDEAL Reform executive director Matt Atwood the same day. "If we don't have the votes Thursday, we can come back again later."
But bill supporters were blindsided by Walters' appearance at the Thursday hearing. Taking full advantage of his prerogatives as a high federal honcho, Walters roared up to the capitol in a motorcade of SUVs replete with a high-visibility security detail and proceeded to testify for an hour. The stature of the federal drug czar was enough to raise doubts in the minds of committee members, leaving the measure defeated by a margin of 4-7 at its first hearing. "We didn't know he was coming," said Atwood. "He testified against the bill, he lobbied the members, he pulled one of the Republicans out of the committee, and after Walters was done, we lost that first vote," he told DRCNet early Thursday afternoon.
The testimony of Walters and other opponents of medical marijuana outweighed the passionate appeals of doctors and medical marijuana patients, who testified to the suffering they endured attempting to use a medicine that can get them arrested. One of the patients lined up to testify Thursday was Brenda Kratovil of Waukegan. Kratovil, who suffers from glaucoma and multiple sclerosis, told DRCNet Wednesday she had already been raided twice and was tired of being worried about the police. "I have already been convicted of possession of a marijuana plant," she said. "That is a felony. I've never been arrested before in my life, and I don't like being known as a felon. I want protection from the police," said Kratovil, who is legally blind. "It's no fun having them raid you and treat you like a drug dealer. They knew as soon as they looked at me that I was no drug dealer, but they still charged me."
The committee also heard from Irv Rosenfeld, one of a handful of people nationwide approved by the federal government to use marijuana medicinally under a since discontinued federal program. "This medicine should be in the hands of physicians, not politicians or the police," he said.
For his pains, Rosenfeld found himself briefly detained by Illinois Capitol Police as soon as he left the committee room. But once the police were educated as to Rosenfeld's protected status, he was released, Atwood told DRCNet. "He's free now; he's standing right beside me," he reported.
"What happened to me illustrates why this bill is necessary," Rosenfeld said moments later. "For 22 years, I have received my medical marijuana directly from the federal government, and yet after I spoke, I was stopped and detained by the police. Had this been any other patient, they would be in jail now, no matter how sick they are or how much pain they are in. Medical marijuana has enabled me to live a normal life and have a successful career as a stockbroker, and it's not fair that only a few of us have legal access to this medicine while so many others with the same need are forced to risk jail for it every day."
While pronouncing themselves disappointed with Thursday's results, bill supporters are prepared to fight on. "We will have a chance for another vote, probably in the next month," Atwood said. "Members today expressed some concerns about specific portions of the bill they want reconsidered. We will work with them on that, and then we'll be able to pass it out of committee," he predicted.
Rep. McKeon had a few harsh words to say after the vote. "I can't remember ever seeing any White House, Republican or Democrat, put such a massive effort and spend so many taxpayer dollars trying to quash a state bill just having its first hearing," he said. "This is an outrageous misuse of tax dollars, and I am distressed that my fellow Democrats couldn't muster the courage to resist this White House interference."
With more to come, it has already been a bruising battle. Barthwell's statewide speaking tour at first generated largely uncritical coverage, especially in smaller down-state newspapers, but also generated openings for bill supporters to fight back. Rep. McKeon lambasted Barthwell for her lies and distortions in an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times, and Montel Williams also contributed an op-ed in favor of the measure. McKeon challenged Barthwell to debate him on the topic -- an offer she has so far been able to refuse.
"We've been in hand to hand combat with our friend Andrea Barthwell," said MPP's Mirken. "I'm really tempted to send her a dozen roses for all the help she has provided by discrediting the message on the other side. She has been saying things that are clearly nonsensical, and we have been able to publicly call her on it. She has been going around the state simply lying about the issue. And I think it is very telling that this woman who says this is all a hoax and we are using patients won't debate the sponsor of the bill, who is a person living with AIDS."
Mirken also lauded Montel Williams' decision to get involved in the issue. "Having Montel out there dynamites the whole notion that the poor patients are being exploited by this terrible band of drug legalizers," he said. "We've been working with Montel for quite a while, and one of the things he offered was to do an op-ed piece. He is very committed to this issue, and he has good reason to, given his experiences."
After high hopes for a quick and easy passage were dashed Thursday, bill supporters are preparing for a new round of lobbying and politicking. With a 2002 poll showing that 67% of Illinoisans support medical marijuana -- that figure rises to 77% if the patient is terminally ill -- the measure clearly enjoys popular support. Now the question is how to translate that support into a victory at the statehouse in the face of entrenched opposition from law enforcement, local drug war entrepreneurs like Barthwell, and her former boss, the drug czar.