Making the Rules: Complicated Series of Maneuvers Required Before Medical Marijuana Becomes Legal

Sep 1, 2013

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
For U.S. Army veteran Jim Champion, the signing of Illinois House Bill 1 into law in early August eventually could mean relief not only from the side effects of the pills he takes for multiple sclerosis but relief from the fear of doing something illegal.

Champion, a resident of Somonauk, was among a handful of citizen lobbyists who spent years trying to persuade the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn to make Illinois the 20th state in the nation to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana.

“I don’t like being a disabled veteran and a criminal,” Champion says. “I feel good that I’ll be getting a regulated product and won’t have the anxiety about where it’s coming from.” But while he says medical-grade marijuana helps him drastically reduce the number of pills he takes for his condition, he knows the implementation of the new law won’t take place overnight.

If all goes according to the vision of lawmakers who sponsored and negotiated the proposal, it likely won’t be until the summer of 2014 before ill people can begin legally purchasing cannabis in Illinois.

“The structure of this law has to be set up first in order for it to work,” says state Sen. Bill Haine, a Democrat from Alton, who carried the measure in the Senate.

The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act creates an exception to Illinois law that permits the use of cannabis by patients with serious medical conditions. It will be on the books for four years and then will have to be reapproved by the legislature to continue.

In short, the law grants adult patients protection from arrest if a physician certifies that the patient has a specific medical condition that could be helped by cannabis. But the law was written to tightly control who can access medical marijuana, who gets to grow it and who can sell it.

For example, only patients who have one of a long list of specific conditions can qualify. The diseases include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Lupus and a number of other serious and painful ailments.

Jim Champion and his wife, Sandy
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

  As Champion has experienced, cannabis offers relief without the side effects of prescription drugs that are commonly offered for the 30 maladies listed. “Some of the effects from the pills I took were worse than anything marijuana can do. There is a legitimate use for this,” Champion said in late July, just hours after he’d undergone physical therapy for his condition.

Officially, the law goes into effect on January 1, 2014. But that just starts the clock ticking on transforming the law into a workable set of rules. State agencies will have 120 days to draft the proposed rules. After that, a special panel of lawmakers — the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules — will begin the process of signing off on the guidelines. That process can take from a few days to many months.

Potential patients would first have to be certified by a doctor as suffering from one of the diseases. The patient would then send a copy of that certification to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The agency would then verify the information and issue an identification card.

A patient could not purchase cannabis without the card. Cards would not be made be available to anyone with a felony conviction or active police officers, firefighters, correctional officers, probation officers, commercial truck drivers or bus drivers.

Once verified, patients could receive as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

The law also outlines how patients can transport marijuana and what would happen if they are caught driving while under the influence. The law calls for motorists to face the same penalties they would face if they were caught driving under the influence of alcohol. The law also doesn’t ban employers from enforcing drug testing or a zero-tolerance workplace policy on drug use, nor does it prohibit landlords from banning marijuana use on the premises of leased property.

The growing of marijuana also would be tightly regulated. Prospective growers would have to submit plans to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which would select one facility in each of the 22 Illinois State Police districts. The growing facilities would have 24-hour surveillance and would operate under other regulations designed to keep track of their inventories. Growers also would have to be located at least 2,500 feet from daycare centers, schools and residentially zoned areas.

Once grown, the marijuana would only be available from 60 dispensaries, and those could not be in residential areas or located within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare. Dispensary employees would have to undergo criminal background checks.

State Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who sponsored the measure in the House, says the law was written so that communities could regulate where a dispensary is located.

“I have no doubt some communities will be as restrictive as possible,” Lang says.

In addition, safeguards were written into the law that were designed to thwart the use of clout in awarding growing licenses or dispensary locations. Unlike most of Illinois’ wide-open campaign finance laws, the act bans marijuana-related companies from contributing money to politicians.

Rules for implementing and monitoring the new law will be written and overseen by a cross-section of state agencies:

  • The Illinois Department of Agriculture will issue permits to the growers. Once the program is under way, the agency is required to conduct weekly inspections on each of the 22 growers.
  • The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation will oversee the licensing of dispensaries.
  • The Department of Public Health will maintain a Web-based verification system for patients.

It remains unclear how many additional employees would have to be hired to help monitor the program. Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold says the final language of the yet-to-be-written rules will determine how the agency approaches the program.

Ag spokesman Jeff Squibb says that department would have to hire additional personnel. “How many hasn’t been determined,” Squibb says. However, the new workers wouldn’t necessarily cost taxpayers more. Rather, they likely will be funded by licensing fees paid by the growers, Squibb says.

Lang says the agencies — all of them under the control of Gov. Quinn — were involved in drafting the law. “I think they want to do it right.” 

However, state agencies may not be on their own in drafting the rules.

In 2009, Dan Williams founded Canna Security America, a Colorado-based firm that installs security systems in marijuana dispensaries in other states. When state lawmakers began writing regulations for marijuana laws in those states, they turned to Williams’ company for help. He says he’s been busy working on regulations in the state of Washington and others but has Illinois on his radar screen and wouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself helping the Land of Lincoln, as well.

Having a clear set of rules governing how marijuana is grown and distributed is key to making the law work, he says. “Without rules, the whole system breaks down,” Williams says. “Once people see the rules are working, you’ll see less push back.”

Illinois joins Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Washington, D.C., in removing state-level penalties from the medical use and cultivation of cannabis. But the legalization push has stalled in other states and is noticeably absent in more conservative southern states.

In Arkansas, a coalition of conservative groups sued to keep a medical marijuana initiative off the ballot. Voters there voted down a legalization effort in November.

Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for the Illinois Family Institute, says the organization has not yet decided upon a strategy to continue fighting Illinois’ move toward medical marijuana. But, he says, the four-year window could provide them with enough time to change the dynamic of the General Assembly before lawmakers have to vote to extend or cancel the program in 2018.

“The measure only passed the House with 61 votes,” Rivera says. In the House, 60 is the minimum needed for passage. “If you get a change in the General Assembly, that could be how it’s done.”

Opponents’ efforts could be bolstered if there are problems once the law is up and running, such as a medical marijuana user being involved in a fatal car accident. “A tragedy could change the mind of the General Assembly,” Rivera says.

Champion says opponents are misguided. “A lot of these people suffer from what I call ‘Reefer Madness,’” he says. “The people who will be using this product are patients who are sick.”

Haine, a former Madison County state’s attorney, agrees. “It does not equate to drugs like cocaine or heroin. It simply is not in that league,” Haine says.

Some, however, believe the push for legalization is not only going to provide medical benefits for certain ailments but could become a “gold rush” for savvy entrepreneurs.

In 2008, Justin Hartfield founded WeedMaps, an online listing of medical marijuana dispensaries. It is designed to help patients find the locations of medical marijuana distributors, their products and their prices. In June, Hartfield launched Emerald Ocean Capital, a venture capital fund that will invest in the growing marijuana industry, in areas such as software and hardware development and products associated with marijuana.

The Newport Beach, Calif.-based businessman says Illinois’ law appears to be written to address many of the problems that vexed marijuana legalization efforts in California and New Jersey. He says companies like Canna Security likely will descend on Illinois to try to take advantage of the emerging market, even though as a pilot program, there’s no guarantee it will be on the books when the law expires in four years.

“It’s a huge risk,” Hartfield says. “But there is also a potentially huge profit.”

In the end, he believes the state-level push to legalize marijuana will force the federal government to drop its opposition to pot. “We really need to legalize marijuana,” Hartfield says.

Champion says he’s already pledged that he won’t lobby for full-scale legalization. “I know a lot of people who believe getting this legalized in Illinois is a stepping stone,” Champion says. “I promised to more than one legislator that I would not push for legalization.”

“We just legitimately want to use marijuana for medicine.”

Kurt Erickson is the Statehouse bureau chief for Lee Enterprises newspapers.

Illinois Issues, September 2013