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Medical marijuana bill rolls through Senate panel

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SPRINGFIELD-Advocates for making Illinois the 19th state to legalize medical marijuana moved one step closer to that goal Wednesday when legislation moved out of a Senate panel over objections that it could pave the way for total legalization of the drug.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. William Haine (D-Alton), passed the Senate committee along a 10-5 margin after passing the House last month with just one vote to spare. A less restrictive plan passed the Senate in 2009, and Haine said he expects a full floor vote on his bill as early as next week.

Supporters have touted the bill as the most restrictive of its kind in the nation, but questions during the more than hour-long debate arose over whether the bill would open up legalization of other substances and whether marijuana is an addictive 'gateway drug.'

"I've seen the devastation of illegal drugs," said Haine, who served four terms as Madison County state's attorney. "I've seen it, but we can't build a civilized society on a foundation of fear of a few people that are demented or are addicted that abuse medicines."

But Jacksonville police chief Anthony Grootens, who worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency for 21 years, testified that he's seen marijuana linked with other drugs such as heroin and that the amount patients could obtain under Haine's bill leaves too much room for abuse.

"I don't know if it's a gateway drug or not, but what I will tell you, in the thousands of arrests and search warrants that we've conducted...for either heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, we routinely found marijuana," Grootens said. "Does it go hand in hand? I don't know. But we found it, and we're still finding it."

Grootens claimed that even if changes were made to the bill, he wouldn't support it because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

Under the bill, patients suffering from one of 33 diseases or illnesses, who have a prescription from a doctor with whom they have an established relationship, could purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

The four-year pilot program authorizes 22 growers and 60 dispensaries across the state and would be set to begin on Jan.1, 2014.

"This is very narrow. It's not legalization. It's not," Haine said. "If it goes to hell, I'll blow it up myself."

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