A one-ounce bag of medicinal marijuana. (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
Illinois rang in 2014 as the 20th state where medical marijuana is legal. But the nuts and bolts of the new state law will likely take legislators at least a year to hammer out. For people interested in becoming card-carrying medical marijuana users or helping grow the new pot industry the law creates, that could mean months of waiting.
The state bill legalizing the use of marijuana and marijuana-infused products to treat health ailments and alleviate chronic symptoms took effect Wednesday. But the bill's chief House sponsor, Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang (D-Skokie), says legal pot will not be for sale here anytime soon.
"This law will be the most highly controlled and regulated. It is like no other bill in no other state," he said. "We're not going to be like California, where pretty much anybody can get an online prescription from a doctor they've never heard of. It is not likely that any patients will have the product before fall or winter 2014 at the earliest."
That's because the state departments tasked with carrying out the new legislation have scores of questions to answer first. Their recommendations, due back to the state legislature by May, will form the basis of the state's medical marijuana regulations, Lang said, from what fees to charge marijuana growers and marijuana dispensaries to what computer software to use to monitor them, to how often to conduct inspections of the facilities to make sure they are following the letter of the law.
Chicago first moved in the direction of decriminalizing marijuana in 2012, when the City Council voted to issue citations for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Since August 2012, police have been able to issue tickets of $250 to $500 for people caught with up to 15 grams of weed.
Under its medical marijuana law, the state plans to license 22 "cultivation centers," or places that will grow marijuana, and 60 dispensaries that will be able to sell the product. But Lang said the new marijuana industry this law creates will likely draw thousands of business applicants, and the state will need to come up with strict criteria to determine who gets to be in business.
Sam Kamin, a professor and program director at the University of Denver College of Law who has studied marijuana legalization in the U.S., said Illinois may be able to learn from other states with legalized medical marijuana, like Washington and Colorado, when crafting its policies.
"There are more things to figure out than you could imagine," he said. "Whether it's labeling, additives, colors, how to avoid marketing to children, how to deal with costs ... there are literally hundreds of thousands of decision points along the way."
The medical marijuana bill already has inspired one local business venture. Good Intentions, a clinic founded in Michigan, opened an outpost in Bucktown in August. It does not offer marijuana to patients and cannot issue medical marijuana cards, but it advertises itself as place where people interested in being prescribed medical marijuana can develop a relationship with physicians who could eventually legally recommend it to them.
State regulators filed a complaint in December against a doctor at the clinic, charging that he was collecting fees from patients without first having a "legitimate physician-patient relationship," which is a requirement of the bill.
The clinic's general manager, Daniel Reid, said the complaint was "anti-patient" and without merit, and that Good Intentions is providing an opportunity for severely ill Chicagoans to take the first step toward access to medical marijuana.
"These people are ill, they're on all sorts of narcotics, they want to break the addiction, they don't want to be in pain, and they know medical marijuana will accomplish that," Reid said. He said he could not disclose how many patients the clinic is currently working with, but that more than 25,000 people have inquired about its services so far.
Reid said he hopes some terminally ill patients could be granted early access to legal medical marijuana in the new year, but Lang said that is unlikely to happen.
To Lang, the issue of getting medical marijuana to suffering people who could die long before the state's medical marijuana program gets underway underscores one of the big challenges of trying to regulate an activity that has long been considered a criminal offense.
"If we did that, we'd be expediting their illegal purchase of marijuana," he said. "We didn't want to put in our law some sanction for doing illegal activity."
Know your pot: A medical marijuana glossary
Dispensary A legal business that may sell medical marijuana to patients
Cultivation center A facility that legally grows cannabis under the monitoring of state authorities
Medical marijuana card A state-issued card identifying its holder as legally able to purchase marijuana for medicinal use, per a doctor's recommendation