By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - The Illinois Senate on Friday voted to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes, which if signed into law would make it the second-most-populous state in the nation after California to allow the drug's use for medical purposes.
The bill, approved by the Illinois House in April, now moves to Governor Pat Quinn's desk to await his signature. Quinn has indicated he is sympathetic to the bill, especially as it would benefit injured veterans.
"We fully expect Gov. Quinn to do the compassionate thing and sign the bill," said Dan Riffle, deputy director of government relations for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.
Riffle said marijuana has proven medical benefits and there is broad public and legislative support for its medical use.
The Illinois bill passed by a vote of 35-21 after an emotional, hour-long debate in which some Republicans said they opposed legalizing medical marijuana because it could be a "gateway drug" to abuse of other illegal substances.
Others said they were not convinced that the benefits of smoking marijuana for certain medical conditions outweighed the potential negative consequences.
Democratic State Senator Bill Haine, a former county prosecutor and the bill's sponsor, said it is the toughest in the nation. He noted that doctors' groups had endorsed the bill.
"It is a substance which is much more benign than powerful prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and the rest," Haine said, referring to frequently abused painkillers. "The scourge of these drugs is well-known. This is not true of the medical use of marijuana."
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, according to Riffle. The Project does not count Maryland, since its law requires the participation of academic medical centers and will not be implemented until 2015. Colorado and Washington state voters decided last fall to allow recreational use of cannabis.
Under the four-year pilot program outlined in the Illinois bill, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of 33 debilitating medical conditions, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis or HIV/AIDS. Patients must register with the state's health department and have written certification from their physicians.
Patients would be limited to 2.5 ounces (70 grams) of marijuana every two weeks. The marijuana must be grown and distributed in Illinois, kept in a closed container, and not used in public or in front of minors.
Those who use, grow or sell the drug must be fingerprinted and undergo background checks. Landlords and employers could ban its use on their property. Users suspected of driving under the influence face the loss of not only their driving privileges, but also their marijuana-use permits.
Under U.S. federal law, marijuana is 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.
Riffle said that New Hampshire and New York are the next states that could legalize medical marijuana.
(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; editing by Greg McCune, Gerald E. McCormick and Matthew Lewis)