Illinois considers legalizing medical marijuana

The bill would be the most restrictive in the country, requiring patients to be diagnosed with one of 30 debilitating medical conditions and have written certification from their physicians.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday will consider whether to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes and join a growing group of states that officially approve pot as a medicine.

The proposal for a three-year pilot program would make Illinois the second most populous state in the nation to allow medical marijuana after California. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington state voters decided on Nov. 6 to allow recreational use of cannabis.

The chief proponent of the law in Illinois, Democratic representative Lou Lang, said he may have the 60 votes needed for a majority to approve the bill. Lawmakers either defeated or retiring from the legislature who previously voted against the bill for political reasons could be swayed because they may not have to face voters again.

"I feel like we're close," Lang said after he conducted his own count on Tuesday. He said about eight lawmakers are undecided, but "If I get three or four, I'll be OK."

The Illinois bill would be the most restrictive in the country, according to Lang. Patients must be diagnosed with one of 30 debilitating medical conditions, must register with the Department of Public Health and have written certification from their physician. Patients would be limited to having no more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

Read also: Pot legalization no free ride to smoke on campus

The bill first appeared in the Illinois House in December 2010 and was passed in the Senate with less-restrictive guidelines, but failed to pass in the House. Since then, the restrictions in the bill have been tightened to accommodate opposing lawmakers.

Under U.S. federal law, marijuana is still considered an addictive substance and distribution is a federal offense. Federal law prohibits physicians from writing prescriptions, so many have issued "referrals" or "recommendations." The administration of President Barack Obama has discouraged federal prosecutors from pursuing people who distribute marijuana for medical purposes under state laws.

Republican Illinois representative Tom Morrison said he would oppose the legislation, calling marijuana a "gateway drug" that leads to abuse of other illegal drugs.

Editing by Greg McCune and Mohammad Zargham.