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Medical marijuana bill brings hope, concern

SOMONAUK – Multiple sclerosis made Jim Champion a prisoner in his own body.

The 59-pill drug cocktail he took on a regular basis didn’t seem to help him, said his wife, Sandy, who lives with her husband in Somonauk. When the doctors increased his prescription for methadone by one pill, he nearly overdosed.

Relief came in 2003 when one of her cousins gave Jim Champion marijuana. Within 10 minutes of smoking it, he was smiling, hungry and his muscles were relaxed.

“After all of those years, he is down to 24 pills a day,” Sandy Champion, 47, said. “Hopefully, with the passage of this bill, we’ll be down even more.”

The Champions now make trips to Springfield, advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana in Illinois. They and others scored a major victory when a legalization proposal passed the Illinois House earlier this month in a 61-57 vote.

Under the bill, patients with “debilitating medical conditions” and a doctor’s prescription could apply for a license that would allow them or a caregiver to buy up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in a two-week period.

For the Champions, it would mean no longer having to buy an illegal drug on the street, which can lead to dangerous situations.

“I don’t like to be considered a criminal in the state of Illinois, but I have to find some way to relieve myself of this disease that’s been attacking my body for 25 years,” Jim Champion, 46, said.

Medical marijuana has come before the Illinois House before, but the restrictions laid out in House Bill 1 have been touted by proponents as the most stringent in the country. It’s what led state Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, to vote yes.

“Clearly, this bill has a lot more restrictions and spells out the process a lot more clearly than any of the state laws that have allowed for medical marijuana,” Pritchard said.

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, also cited the new restrictions as being a plus. If the Senate version of the bill keeps the same restrictions the House signed off on, Syverson said he will vote for it.

“This is not for people who have chronic pain,” Syverson said. “This is people who have serious or terminal illness, have to be under a physician’s care. There are safeguards about where it comes from.”

Jim Champion noted that the bill defines specific diseases a person has to have before receiving the drug.

“It’s an exclusive club, but it’s one you don’t want to be a member of,” he said.

Under the proposed bill, the marijuana would have to be purchased from one of 60 dispensaries dispersed throughout the state. The state would track prescriptions in an effort to limit abuses, flagging doctors who prescribe it a lot.

Doctors also would have to have seen the patient at least twice in the previous year before they could write a prescription for marijuana.

But the restrictions did not win over Rep. Tom Demmer, who voted no.

The Dixon Republican said he found it hard to support the legalization of a drug when its benefits are unknown. Demmer said he would want to see some kind of recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration.

“I think that’s the appropriate measure to take, regardless if you’re talking about a new kind of Tylenol or medical marijuana,” Demmer said. Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, expressed similar sentiments.

The bill also limits the number of growers to 22, one per state police district. DeKalb County is in District 2, which also includes McHenry, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties.

DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said enforcing this law could be tricky if Illinois legalizes medical marijuana. While the bill’s language can change between now and final passage, Scott said he does not think it’s law enforcement’s job to regulate health issues.

“I still think it’s putting another drug out there for smoking,” Scott said. “It’s ironic that Illinois has come down hard on people who smoke regular cigarettes but will now allow marijuana cigarettes. Seems a bit contradictory to me.”

• Shaw Media reporter Emily K. Coleman contributed to this story.

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