Tom Kacich: Opinions vary on medical-marijuana legislation
Sometime this week, according to his office, Gov. Pat Quinn will decide whether to sign legislation making medical marijuana use legal in Illinois.
If the governor sought advice from top law enforcement officials in East Central Illinois, he'd get a pretty wide variety of opinions.
Vermilion County Sheriff Pat Hartshorn is a strong no. Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh would fall into the "OK" category. In between are the chiefs of police in Champaign and Urbana, who are — publicly, at least — neutral.
The controversial bill would authorize a four-year pilot program to allow people to use marijuana if they are suffering from any one of more than 30 medical conditions.
People could get up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks if their personal physician certified that the patient had a specific debilitating condition such as cancer, spinal cord injury, lupus, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, Crohn's disease, muscular dystrophy or about two dozen other afflictions.
"I don't have an opinion on it at this point in time," said Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb. "We'll just take a wait-and-see approach, and if it becomes law, we'll take a look at what the impact is and act accordingly."
Urbana Police Chief Pat Connelly was similarly ambivalent.
"I have absolutely no position," said Connelly. "I don't get involved in politics. Whatever law passes, we're going to comply with the law."
The chiefs' stated neutrality is at odds with a joint statement from the Illinois Sheriff's Association, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Chicago Crime Commission that HB 1 would present serious public safety risks to Illinoisans.
Here is a link to the legislation.
Hartshorn, president of the sheriffs' association this year, was far from neutral.
"If I had to sum it up, it would be this, that this isn't a new experiment. Other states have done it and I think a lot of the states that have been in this for a while are starting to experience problems with this law and how to police it and govern it," the 23-year sheriff said. "I don't know why Illinois wants to go down that path when they have examples of states that have tried it and it's not working out for them."
Hartshorn said he opposed the bill for a number of reasons: that the marijuana will end up in the wrong hands; that the active ingredient in cannabis, THC, already is available in pill form; and that the marijuana could be used around other people.
"You've got it in homes and you've got it around children and other people. It creates a lot of civil court cases for employers who have workers saying that they have to smoke this stuff, that my doctor prescribed it for me for my back pain or whatever it is. I think you'll get into litigation with employers and employees," he added. "I don't think there's anything good about what's going to happen here in Illinois."
And Hartshorn is skeptical of claims that the Illinois proposal is the strictest of 19 around the country.
"They've made an effort to sell it as that. That's their story," he said of the advocates. "I don't know if it is or it isn't but have you ever heard a legislator selling you a bill who didn't tell you it was the best or the strictest?"
Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason said he's concerned about the medical marijuana getting into the hands of non-patients.
"I understand the system, what it's about, but I have concerns about it, that it may proliferate and may create more abuse," said Thomason. "I think there have to be a lot of safeguards in place, otherwise we're moving toward a system like in some states where it is totally allowed. I'm just not ready to go there at this point in time, because of it potentially leading to more dangerous drugs.
"For people who have to have that in order to ease their pain, who have some sort of suffering or malady that we can't imagine what it is to have, then I'm all for it. But I just don't want to see the system abused."
Backers of the bill — it passed the House 61-57 and the Senate 35-21 — contend the legislation has adequate safeguards. The marijuana used would have to come from one of up to 22 state-regulated cultivation centers (one for every state police district) and would be sold at up to 60 state-regulated dispensaries. Users couldn't smoke in view of minors, nor in a public place. Employers would be free to enforce a drug-free workplace.
Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh was the least concerned about the proposed law.
"I really don't see it being a big problem. The sheriffs' association is opposed to it, but I don't particularly see a big problem with it. You're always going to have enforcement issues," said the 11-year sheriff. "Medically, I think there's some value to anything that relieves pain and in some cases encourages people to eat, to build up their appetite. Especially in chemotherapy, I think it could be a very useful tool.
"Could it be abused? Sure. Are prescription drugs abused now? Certainly, but I don't see it being a huge law enforcement problem."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.