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'Cash crop' would be bad medicine
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Two bills have been introduced in the Illinois Legislature intending to make legal the medicinal use of smoked marijuana. The companion bills, entitled the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, have been filed in both the Illinois House and Senate and are supported by a surprisingly large percentage of the Democratic caucuses in both chambers. Legislative members, however, have been misinformed by supporters regarding both the impact the bills will have upon Illinois and the long-term motivations of the bill's supporters. Lobbyists are making no attempt to conceal their long-range goal for Illinois: Cannabis legalization.

The Illinois bill is similar to one that passed in California several years ago. In Northern California, marijuana has become the most lucrative agricultural commodity in the region (surpassing wine), and is known in California as the "cash crop." California is fast overtaking Mexico as the exporter of the marijuana being smuggled into the Midwestern and Eastern United States. During the past year, more cannabis loads were interdicted along Interstate 80 in Illinois originating from California than from Mexico. Is Illinois poised to become the next supplier of marijuana to the East Coast?

The law is nominally intended for terminally ill patients. In California, 40 percent of medical marijuana patients are between 21 and 30 years of age, and not terminally ill. As the current legislation is written, anyone complaining of chronic pain is eligible to obtain a license.

Proponents of the bill claim compounds in cannabis have medicinal properties that ease the pain and suffering of certain terminally ill patients. If so, then those chemical compounds should be isolated and researched. In the United States, there is a process for creating and vetting medicines that should not be averted with this particular chemical compound. Several plant-based substances have been converted to medicines (aspirin and morphine, for example), including Opium plants. In no medicinal prescription has smoking been determined to be the best delivery system of the drug. The American Medical Association also opposes smoking as a viable delivery system.

Dr. Rafael Meshulam from Hebrew University has been conducting brain injury research for more than 20 years. He has isolated compounds from the cannabis sativa plant that experimentation has shown has some promising medicinal qualities for trauma patients. He has patented those medicines with injectable delivery systems, and a large Israeli pharmaceutical company is working toward commercializing the products.

Featured in a National Geographic Explorer episode entitled "Marijuana Nation," Dr. Meshulam questions the smoking of cannabis as a crude medical delivery system. On the program, he wonders aloud how a doctor prescribing smokable cannabis can be sure of what dosage any particular patient is receiving.

When doctors prescribe any other drug, the dosage recommendation is extremely specific. There is a substantial difference, for example, between giving a patient 30 milligrams or 10 grams of a particular drug. Marijuana, on the other hand, can range by as much as 3 percent to over 30 percent THC content. Is this a controlled medical drug?

Beyond the murky medicinal link, there are several other potential community impacts that are contained in the bill. The bill allows each license holder to grow up to seven plants. Given that each plant yields an average of one-half pound of smokable marijuana, and each half pound of marijuana equates to 454 cigarettes, how could each patient consume 454 joints produced by each plant? Coincidentally, each patient also is allowed a care giver who can also grow 7 plants, making the yield for the patient actually 3,178 joints.

In the proposed legislation, there are no restrictions for who may be licensed patients. Police officers, day care workers, bus drivers, pilots, teachers, elected officials, surgeons, paramedics, fire fighters, and air traffic controllers can all be medical marijuana consumers under the law (they just cannot be impaired while flying a plane or driving a bus). However, there is no objective definition of "impairment."

The law also gives landlords and property owners no way to restrict or prevent licensed patients from growing cannabis inside their buildings. The odor, mold and chemical residue issues that police find after raiding these indoor facilities make the buildings uninhabitable and will be expensive for property owners to mitigate. Residential properties are ill-suited to commercial agricultural operations of any of any type. Fifty-percent of residential fires in California now originate from grows gone bad.

This is not a road Illinois wants to travel down. If there are therapeutic benefits to compounds within the cannabis plant, let them be extracted and delivered safely like every other medicine.