Medical Marijuana in Illinois

Medical Marijuana in Illinois

On August 1, 2013 Governor Pat Quinn signed House Bill 1 (HB1), effectively creating a medical marijuana pilot program for the state of Illinois. This bill makes Illinois the 20th state in the nation to adopt a law allowing those with serious illnesses to use medical marijuana if their doctor recommends it.

The Medical Cannabis Pilot Program

The Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program (MCPP), allows patients with one of 35 “debilitating medical conditions” to obtain approval from a physician to use medical marijuana. The MCPP creates a framework to protect physicians and qualified medical marijuana patients from arrest and prosecution for possessing marijuana. According to advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), who hired lobbyists and paid for advertising and grants to local activists, the bill took almost 10 years to pass. MPP also recruited around 270 physicians to support the bill.

The bill requires the coordination of three state agencies. The Department of Public Health will oversee the creation and management of the state's medical marijuana patient registry, the Department of Agriculture will regulate medical marijuana cultivation facilities and the Department of Financial and Professional Responsibilities will regulate the medical marijuana dispensaries. The law is called a “Pilot Program” because it was created with a “sunset” provision, meaning that if the legislature does not renew the program or create a new law, the program will cease to operate four years from the date it goes into effect.

The Most Conservative Cannabis Law in the Country

House Bill 1 is one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the nation, with a number of strict regulations. For years the idea faced fierce opposition, so winning narrow approval meant putting major stipulations in the law.

Under the four year pilot program, patients must be formally diagnosed with one of 35 specific debilitating medical conditions such as cancer or multiple sclerosis. The purpose of a list of definitive illnesses is aimed at preventing just anyone from being able to obtain a prescription. Minors, individuals with felony drug convictions, police officers, firefighters, probation officers, and school bus drivers do not qualify.

Moreover, the law only permits a physician who has an established relationship with a patient and is treating the patient’s debilitating medical condition to certify them for use of medical marijuana.The definition of “established relationship” is still under debate. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) would not consider a physician to be legitimately treating a patient for a condition if the only treatment being provided is a written authorization for medical cannabis. No specialty exists that treats all the qualifying medical conditions in the law, meaning there is no one physician that could properly treat all eligible patients.

"Unlike some states, Illinois law does not allow for 'medical cannabis clinics' or practices that exist solely to offer cannabis certifications," IDFPR Acting Secretary Manuel Flores said. "We want to make sure that patients who would truly benefit from the relief of medical cannabis are not misled and physicians are not violating the law." Any physician advertising as a "medical cannabis clinic" will immediately fall under the Department's scrutiny.

The dispensing of medical cannabis will also be very tightly regulated. Unlike most states who legalized marijuana, the new Illinois law will not permit patients or caregivers to grow their own marijuana. Patients can only obtain medical cannabis through a licensed dispensary, of which there will be no more than 60 who must comply with strict rules established by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Medical Marijuana

Dispensaries can obtain marijuana from one of 22 cultivation centers, one for each State Police District, which are also under strict regulation  to ensure professional licensing, 24-hour surveillance, and inventory control. Each one must comply with local zoning laws and be located at least 2,500 feet away from child care centers, schools, and residential zones.

Qualifying patients will be limited to purchasing 2.5 ounces (70 grams) of marijuana in a 14 day span.  All acquired cannabis must have been grown in Illinois, kept in a closed container, and cannot be used in public, in a correctional or healthcare facility, on school grounds, or in front of minors. Cannabis may not be smoked in any other place where smoking is prohibited by state law. Employers will also maintain the power to enforce a drug-free workplace.

Medical marijuana advocates consider HB1 to be a very important first step, but admit there are many concerns to be addressed in follow-up legislation. Chief among the concerns is that the bill will continue to criminalize patients cultivating their own cannabis, a right afforded to qualified patients in the majority of states with legalized cannabis laws. It is expected that the cost of obtaining marijuana from a dispensary will be too expensive for thousands of patients, which could further lead to illegally buying marijuana from street dealers. HB1 also mandates fingerprinting and criminal background checks for patients, and gives police unrestricted access to their records.

Future of Medical Cannabis in Illinois

Despite the new medical marijuana law, Illinois' marijuana penalties remain harsh, and the state has the fifth highest arrest rate for marijuana possession in the nation. A study by the ACLU found that there were nearly 50,000 marijuana possession arrests in Illinois in 2010. State lawmakers have introduced House Bill 4299, which would reduce the penalties of marijuana possession. Currently, the possession of under 30 grams of marijuana is a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, up to a $25,000 fine, or both.

Medical marijuana in IllinoisHB 4299 would reduce the first offense of possession of small amounts of marijuana (up to 30g) to a petty offense, punishable by a fine of up to $100 and eliminating jail time. Subsequent offenses for marijuana possession of up to 30 grams would be a Class A misdemeanor as opposed to a Class 4 Felony. The bill would also reduce penalties for the manufacturing, delivery, or possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, or manufacture of less than 10 grams of marijuana from a Class A or B misdemeanor to a petty offense punishable by a $100 fine. Cultivation of up to 5 marijuana plants would also be reclassified as a petty offense.

Since medical marijuana in Illinois must be grown in Illinois, in accordance with the new law, an infrastructure must be set up and that could take some time. Without approved growers and sellers, obtaining marijuana for medical purposes currently remains illegal, despite the law going into effect January 1, 2014. Licensed medical marijuana cultivation centers and distribution facilities are expected to begin producing medical marijuana and providing it to patients in late 2014, but patients with qualifying medical conditions will not be protected from arrest until the Department of Public Health has established the patient registry and approved their individual applications to the program. Advocates predict it will be spring 2015 before patients will be allowed to use the drug.