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21/04/2007 16:00:00

US: Clergy join push to OK medical pot

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois' latest attempt to legalize medical
marijuana is getting support from a surprising source - religious leaders.

"The moral issue is relief of suffering," said the Rev. D. Jay Johnson
of the Union Avenue Christian Church in Litchfield, Ill.

Johnson is one of more than 40 state religious leaders named in a letter
distributed to legislators as they consider changing Illinois law to
allow use of marijuana for treating pain and nausea in medical patients.

But opponents also are leaning on religious morality as a central part
of their argument. They say that the real purpose of the movement is to
legalize recreational pot, and that well-meaning clergy are being duped.

"I think they're using the compassion of people who don't understand
what the goal is," said Anita Bedell of the Illinois Church Action on
Alcohol & Addiction Problems, the group leading the fight against the bill.

Legislation pending in the Senate would allow people diagnosed with
"debilitating" medical conditions to legally possess up to 12 cannabis
plants and as much as 2.5 ounces of usable cannabis.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has passed
committee and is awaiting a Senate floor vote.

Cullerton has acknowledged that its chances are still questionable
unless he can garner more support from his colleagues. He estimates he
has about 20 of the 30 votes needed for Senate passage.

Proponents say medicinal marijuana can ease nausea associated with
chemotherapy treatments for cancer, the pain of multiple sclerosis and
other conditions.

Usage would be regulated by the state Department of Public Health and
overseen by a doctor. The legislation would require that the cannabis be
grown in locked, indoor locations.

In the past decade, medicinal marijuana has been legalized in 12 states:
Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New
Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

"It's simply morally wrong to punish people for making an earnest
attempt at healing," said Tyler Smith, spokesman for the Interfaith Drug
Policy Initiative, the Washington-based group behind the religious
campaign to pass the bill.

The letter from religious leaders supporting legalized medical marijuana
states: "Our religious values of compassion, mercy, and justice compel
us to ask that you vote yes on the medical marijuana bill." It was
e-mailed to Illinois senators several weeks ago.

Smith acknowledges that when it comes to marijuana use, some people feel
it is just inherently wrong. He maintains, however, that it is wrong to
send people to prison for using marijuana to alleviate pain.

"It takes religious leaders taking a stand for people to really
understand that," he said.

Critics of the campaign allege its proponents may have misled those
religious leaders into believing the legislation is strictly about
hospice use of marijuana.

"Who wouldn't want to make a person in that condition feel better?" said
Jeannie Lowe, also of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction

Lowe and other opponents say the wording of the legislation is so vague
that, with a willing doctor, a patient could meet the standards for
marijuana use for just about any illness.

The Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative compiled the list of names by
sending out mailers to various churches and temples around the state,
asking leaders to mail back their signatures in support of the proposal.

Still, some religious leaders named in the letter said they had, in
fact, been thinking primarily in terms of easing the suffering of
terminal cancer patients.

"I'm thinking in terms of people who are terminal or on chemotherapy,"
said the Rev. Dr. Gladys Herzog of Salem United Church of Christ in
Alhambra, Ill.

She added, "I'm sure it will evoke disagreement" among religious people.

Others named in the letter said they saw their support as being
consistent with religious thought regarding compassion for the sick.

"It comes down to, what do we think God is up to?" said Pastor Bob
Hillenbrand of First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, Ill. He said his
own belief was in "a God of compassion, and therefore also of healing."

Pastor Robert C. Morwell of Union United Methodist Church in Quincy said
he had never used marijuana nor had any desire to. "But I think it's a
little silly to say we can prescribe morphine - and other drugs that are
more addictive," but not marijuana, he said.

State Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, the bill's sponsor, dismissed
concerns that legalizing medical marijuana would pave the way for
recreational marijuana use. He said it was already relatively easy for
recreational users to obtain pot illegally, without having to get a
doctor involved. Also, he pointed out that the legislation would
specifically limit the growing and usage of medical marijuana to the
patient, and increase the penalties for any who abused that system.

"It's a compassionate bill," said Cullerton. "If that brings a moral
dimension to it (for some supporters), that's fine."

Cullerton sponsored similar legislation last year and won committee
passage, but he declined to call it for a vote for fear it would become
an election-year issue, he said.

The bill is SB650.

Author: Ledger-Enquirer via UKCIA

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