NEW YORK (MainStreet) Illinois Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed a new bill last month adding seizure conditions to the list of qualifying conditions in the state for the nascent medical marijuana program. The pilot program, approved by the state legislature, is moving one more step closer to being reality next month. The Department of Public Health can also add additional qualifying conditions at its discretion. The Board will begin meeting in January 2015.
"The law also gives the Department of Public Health the authority to add other conditions for minors as a part of their power to add other conditions via the regulatory process," said Ali Nagib, assistant director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
The use of low THC/high CBD medication particularly in treating childhood epilepsy, is a phenomenon that has swept the nation this year.
Medical marijuana officially became "legal" in Illinois as of January 1. That said, the state faces significant complications in proceeding, not the least of which is the fact that marijuana is not yet decriminalized in Illinois although efforts to proceed on this front are underway. 98.7% of all arrests in the state involving marijuana are for simple possession.
Also challenging are the state's tough zero tolerance drugged driving laws which essentially preclude the ability of medical marijuana patients to drive. Illinois is one of 14 states to have implemented such conditions which can convict anyone with even trace amounts of the drug (from a joint smoked up to 30 days ago) in his system.
Up to 10,000 potential existing patients in Illinois will begin signing up to become state-sanctioned users in September. State registration, which will proceed via alphabetical last name order, will proceed in its initial round through the next several months.
Illinois may be less than a cutting edge state when it comes to the issue of marijuana reform, but advancements are clearly being made with an eye to the national movement.
"Developments in other states definitely have an impact on how our program will be rolled out but it currently does not appear to have a significant impact on the additions of qualifying conditions," said Nagib. "One exception may be in the case of a condition like PTSD, which has been approved in some states but not others, and as more states add it, it will become at least somewhat more likely that Illinois will follow suit."
Illinois also faces a situation current in several other states, particularly those where marijuana reform is being rolled out cautiously. Even after the fall when patients have been registered, there are still no legal sources for patients to get the drug.
"The applications for cultivation centers and dispensaries have not been released yet, and it will likely be six to nine months before dispensaries are open with medicine on the shelf for patient access," Nagib said.
Nagib believes that as the state expands the list of qualifying conditions this will also positively affect patients.
"We do believe that eventually if the list of qualifying conditions is expanded significantly, particularly to include things like chronic pain and nausea, it will have a major impact on demand and increase pressure for more cultivation centers and dispensaries but it's still far too early to say how that will happen," Nagib said.
For now, potential patients in Illinois must content themselves with knowing that imminent reform is on the horizon even if this fall it is no more than signing up for access via the state registration process.
Nagib also believes that reform in Illinois will come fastest from public opinion if not at the ballot box. Reform by legislative initiative in Illinois has proved as slow as in other states.
"We believe there is currently majority support for legalization in Illinois among the population but it will likely be a few years before the General Assembly in Springfield catches up to public opinion," Nagib said.
That said, those whose job it is to lead the charge for change have no intention of letting the cutting edge of reform that has come to Illinois on this issue falter for lack of advocacy. "Tax and regulate" bills are already on the drawing board for the 2015 spring session of the General Assembly. However even reform advocates like Nagib see this as a multi-year process in Illinois.
"We expect it will take at least two to three years before we are able to advance one of those bills towards passage into law," he said.
The Medical Cannabis Pilot Program in Illinois expires at the end of 2017. By that time however, Nagib believes the state will be ready for recreational use. As he predicted, "We expect the 2017 session to be a key one as we make the transition from medical-only to tax-and-regulate for all adult use."
--Written by Marguerite Arnold for MainStreet