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Veterans key to medical marijuana lobby efforts

Jun. 21, 2013 - 03:04PM   |  
Jim Champion
Army veteran Jim Champion listens to lawmakers during hearing on medical marijuana May 8 at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Champion, who suffers from a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, hopes his experience with marijuana as medicine will help bring relief to other suffering veterans in Illinois. (Seth Perlman / AP)
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CHICAGO — When a constant, “sputtering” pain grips Jim Champion’s arms and legs, the Army veteran says only one thing brings him relief: marijuana.

Champion, who suffers from a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, hopes his experience with marijuana as medicine will help bring relief to other suffering veterans in Illinois. He’s told his story to Gov. Pat Quinn, who now faces a decision whether to sign a measure legalizing medical marijuana in the state.

The veteran, who met Quinn in 2011, says his illness started with blurred vision when he was in the military 25 years ago and ultimately left him a quadriplegic reliant on his wife for care. Pills he took to control pain, which causes violent tremors and leaves him at times unable to open his fists, killed his appetite and turned him “into a zombie,” he says. At the same time, the marijuana his wife adds to baked goods relaxed him.

“My nerves kinda shut off. They quit jumping, sputtering,” Champion said. “So far I’ve found no medicine that’s capable of doing that.”

Pleas from people such as Champion who have serious illnesses have been central to efforts to lobby for legalized medical marijuana in Illinois. As Quinn decides whether to sign the measure, those personal stories could make the difference.

Quinn has placed veterans’ issues at the top of his agenda since before he held the state’s highest office. That has included attending their funerals, creating a relief fund for families who lost active-duty soldiers and traveling to Germany each Christmas to visit wounded soldiers.

The Democratic governor has mentioned hearing compelling stories of sick patients, including a veteran, who have been aided by cannabis. But Quinn, facing the start of what could be a tough re-election campaign, has said only that he’s “open minded” to the proposal.

Some law enforcement officials are against the measure, which would allow seriously ill patients — the bill describes roughly 30 conditions — who have a doctor’s approval to access the drug.

Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, a Virginia-based nonprofit group, has organized in several states including Illinois, saying marijuana can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder find balance.

“Really the choices are few and basically suck,” said Michael Krawitz, the group’s executive director. “It’s a population that finds cannabis really, really useful.”

Opponents have been vocal as well.

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association have called on Quinn to veto the measure, saying it would create troubles for motorists. The Chicago Crime Commission, a non-government group that looks at crime trends, says legalized marijuana raises too many questions and that the allowed amount — 2.5 ounces per patient at a time — is too high.

“Would it wind its way to family members? On purpose or inadvertently? Would it wind its way onto the street corner drug trade?” asked Joe Ways, the commission’s executive director.

Proponents say the 2.5-ounces limit is necessary for baking, in case a patient can’t smoke.

The measure outlines a four-year pilot program that requires patients and caregivers to undergo background checks and sets provisions for state-regulated dispensaries. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said the regulations are stiff.

“There’s an absolute need out there. It will help the quality of life immensely for a lot of people,” Lang said. “Every leaf, every transaction is going to be tracked.”

Champion would like for his wife to be able to buy marijuana for him without the legal risk.

After being diagnosed with the autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, Champion was medically discharged from the Army in 1989.

Over the years, doctors prescribed numerous medications — including morphine, valium and methadone — to help him deal with the pain, until he was taking 59 pills a day. The medications made it difficult for Champion to eat. Last year, he experienced kidney failure. Once a robust 185 pounds, he saw the scale dip to near 130.

“You don’t remember a lot. You’re not hungry. You’re constantly sick to your stomach. You’re tired. You’re shaky,” he said.

Marijuana brought back his appetite and eased the pain without side effects, he said. While neither likes that she buys the drug on the streets, his wife, Sandy Champion, agrees to be interviewed about it, and both say it’s worth the risk. He’s decreased his daily pills to around two dozen.

Champion is optimistic about the bill’s chances and believes Quinn’s talk about the sacrifices of service members is heartfelt.

“I reminded him that I was one of those veterans,” he said.

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