Legislation to let kids with epilepsy use pot advances

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SPRINGFIELD — Legislation to expand the use of medical marijuana to severely epileptic children and to lower the penalties for possession of pot for recreational purposes advanced Tuesday at the Illinois Statehouse.

Three different measures got out of Democratic-led House and Senate committees with only token opposition to a Democratic-led push to go beyond last August’s vote to allow only sick Illinoisans to use the drug legally on a pilot basis.

Pushed by the parents of severely epileptic children, legislation sponsored by Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, would permit minors with seizure disorders, including epilepsy, to take a derivative of medical cannabis.

Her plan adding a new medical condition to the state’s medical marijuana law — and specifically letting minors access the drug — passed the Senate Public Health Committee 8-0 and now moves to the full Senate.

“Letters have been sent by so many parents who suffer watching their children have seizures — and not just one or two seizures: 100, 200, 1,000 seizures a week,” Martinez said. “This could be a lifesaving solution for children suffering from epilepsy.”

Naperville resident Nicole Gross, who testified on behalf of Senate Bill 2636, is one of those parents whose 8-year-old son, Chase, has seizures constantly. Giving a “conservative” estimate, she said Chase typically has 1,500 seizures a day.

Gross has moved Chase, who started having seizures at 10 months old, out to Colorado to get medical marijuana treatment, and she said that has improved his quality of life dramatically.

“When we hit 20 minutes seizure-free, I cried,” Gross said of her son, who had been having seizures 10 to 15 times in two minutes. “That’s 300 seizures he’s not having an hour.”

Gross, who takes care of Chase full-time in Colorado, said she’s “ecstatic” that the bill passed in committee and looks forward to the day she can return with him to Illinois, where her husband works in the health insurance industry.

Meanwhile, the House Restorative Justice Committee passed two separate pieces of legislation that would ease the punishment on those caught with marijuana.

“The war on drugs has not worked,” said Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Our jails are overcrowded. We need to get smarter on crime, not tougher. Drug addiction is a public health problem, not a public safety problem.”

Under Mitchell’s House Bill 4299, which passed 6-0 in committee, instead of getting a misdemeanor for possessing up to 30 grams — about an ounce — of marijuana, violators would get a fine of no more than $100 with a “petty offense” on their record.

“It would almost be like getting a traffic ticket,” Mitchell said. “People don’t need to get a rap sheet for marijuana. They made a bad decision and need a way to recover, not to be thrown in jail.”

In 2012, Chicago’s City Council approved an ordinance that gives police officers the option of issuing tickets to anyone caught with 15 grams of marijuana or less. But police still have the option of arresting people on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, passed another pot-ticketing bill 5-2 in committee that would decriminalize marijuana.

Under her legislation, House Bill 5708, possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana would be a “regulatory offense” that would still include a fine of $100 but not exist on someone’s record.

“If we say we’re serious about decriminalizing marijuana, we should decriminalize it: There shouldn’t be collateral consequences,” Cassidy said. “If it’s on your criminal record, it can still impact your ability to find work, apply for housing and receive student loans.”

Cassidy’s bill has the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Community Renewal Society and the Marijuana Policy Project, among others.

But Anita Bedell, with Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, opposed Cassidy’s and Mitchell’s bills. She said she’s worried about the message that lowering marijuana penalties sends to young people.

“There are negative consequences of marijuana,” Bedell said. “The effects on teenage brains are long-term and irreversible. This makes it sound like it doesn’t cause problems, but it does — especially for young people. If it’s like a speeding ticket, that shows teens it’s not much of a problem and more and more people are going to use marijuana.”

Bedell said the Legislature is “rushing” down the road of legalizing marijuana completely, an outcome that she said would be “disastrous” to the state.

Both bills move on to the House floor. Mitchell said he, Cassidy and Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, who also is sponsoring separate marijuana decriminalization bill, are considering combining their bills into one piece of marijuana legislation.

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