Lawmakers fine-tune the rules of medical marijuana use.
State lawmakers have set final rules to allow medical marijuana in Illinois, opening the door for patients to apply for ID cards this fall and to start purchasing legal cannabis by next spring.
Those hoping to get in on the new industry, though, cautioned that several significant hurdles remain before marijuana is available to patients: State regulators must choose which businesses will get licenses to grow and sell pot, and must set up a laboratory and procedures to test the drug for safety. And then there’s the matter of figuring out how to start growing a crop that has been illegal for decades.
Bryan Willmer, an owner of Grand Prairie Farms in Frankfort who hopes to open a dispensary and cultivation centers in Will, Kankakee and Champaign counties, said entrepreneurs are hoping state officials will specify how to get seeds.
“I guess they should fall from the sky,” he joked.
State officials said Tuesday they will try to clarify that issue. In addition, the Illinois Department of Agriculture is converting one of its labs into a testing center, where pot can be checked for potency, mold and pesticides so consumers know what they are getting, said Bob Morgan, coordinator of the state program.
But first — hopefully within 30 days, he said — regulators will draw up criteria that will be used to score business applications to decide who will be awarded licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana. The state intends to approve up to 21 cultivation centers and 60 retail stores spread around Illinois, based on issues like security, patient education and expertise in growing crops, Morgan said.
Officials said Illinois has the strictest rules among the 23 states that have approved medical marijuana in recent years, including, just this month, New York. Rather than allowing pot to be used to treat broad conditions such as pain, as done in other states, Illinois will require that patients get their doctor to certify that they one of three dozen specific debilitating conditions, such as cancer, HIV or multiple sclerosis.
Patient advocates said Illinois is the only state to require fingerprints for criminal background checks not only for industry owners and workers but for patients. But proponents welcomed Tuesday’s approval of regulations by the Illinois Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules as a key step in the process governing how pot will be grown, sold and used.
Entrepreneurs should be able to apply by September for licenses to grow and sell pot. Patients with last names beginning with the letters A through L may apply for ID cards to buy pot in September and October, officials said, while the remainder may apply in November and December.
Since it generally takes at least four months to grow a crop of marijuana, and time to develop a site, officials said they expect it will be spring before the drug is available.
Despite the wait, state Rep. Lou Lang, the leading public proponent of the measure, said medical marijuana will “improve the lives of many people in the state of Illinois — people who are using this product now illegally …and people who have not been using the product.”
While limited research has supported some patients’ claims that marijuana relieves pain, tremors and nausea, with fewer serious side effects than many prescription drugs, other research has shown that smoking it is harmful to the lungs and can cause brain damage. The American Medical Association opposes legalization of marijuana but calls for further study of its effects.
Federal law still classifies pot with the most dangerous and addictive illegal drugs with no accepted medical use, like heroin and LSD, while addictive narcotics like morphine are legal by prescription. The Illinois law doesn’t override federal law, but federal prosecutors have indicated they will not focus on individuals who are following state laws.
While marijuana advocates applauded Illinois’ progress on the issue, some have also criticized the required business fees as too high and worry they will be passed on to customers and cause businesses to fail.
Cultivation centers will have to pay $200,000 for an initial license and have $500,000 in liquid assets, while dispensaries must pay $30,000 for a license and have $400,000 in liquid assets. The initial fee for patients is $100. Sales taxes will tack on 8 percent to the price, which will be dictated by the market, not regulated by the state.
State officials have said high entry fees are needed to ensure that business operators have enough capital to start and maintain a complex business.
While the Illinois law only provides for a four-year pilot program, one year of which is being spent just to get prepared, Lang said he hoped lawmakers would eventually make the program permanent.
Members of the Marijuana Policy Project, which lobbies to end marijuana prohibition, estimated Illinois will have about 10,000 qualified patients, based on the experience in other states.
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