Illinois medical marijuana law's treatment anything but compassionate

Matt DietrichReboot Illinois

Jan 14, 2015

Incompetence, history of corruption sandbag new Illinois medical marijuana law

The headline on a Daily Beast article Wednesday gives Illinois government way too much credit: “Illinois’ Absurd Fight to Block Medical Marijuana.”

That title implies a measure of organization that, unfortunately, doesn’t apply to anything about the state’s medical marijuana program since Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law in August 2013.

A better headline might be, “Illinois’ Incompetence and Legacy of Corruption Blocks Medical Marijuana.”

When Quinn on Aug. 1, 2013, signed what officially is known as the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act  — an oxymoron given what would transpire over the next 17 months — he made Illinois the 23rd state with a medical marijuana law on its books. It capped years of effort by sufferers of numerous chronic diseases to persuade Illinois lawmakers that marijuana provided them relief where prescription drugs failed.

The program was a pilot, limited in scope and carefully crafted in a 200-page bill to ensure that Illinois would not follow the example of California, where infamously (or perhaps just famously) lax regulations make “medical” marijuana easy to obtain.

A press release from Quinn following the signing was emphatic in describing the scrutiny patients, producers and dispensers would face:

The new law enacts strict restrictions on the cultivation centers to ensure professional licensing, 24-hour surveillance and inventory control. There will be 22 cultivation centers – one for each State Police District. Each must comply with local zoning laws, and be located at least 2,500 feet from day care centers and schools.

The dispensing of medical cannabis will also be tightly regulated. Unlike some states, Illinois law will not permit patients or caregivers to cultivate cannabis. Eligible patients may purchase up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis every 14 days. There will be no more than 60 licensed dispensaries, which must comply with strict rules established by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

The law specifies 35 medical conditions for eligibility, such as muscular dystrophy, cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS. The prescribing physician and patient must have an established relationship. Minors and people with felony drug convictions or psychiatric conditions do not qualify. Patients may not be police officers, firefighters, probation officers or school bus drivers. Patients who drive while impaired by medical cannabis face the same penalties as those who drive while impaired by prescription drugs.

Quinn himself was effusive after putting his signature on the bill. From the same release:

“As Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future’,” Governor Quinn said. “Over the years, I’ve been moved by the brave patients and veterans who are fighting terrible illnesses. They need and deserve pain relief.”

“This new law will provide that relief and help eligible patients ease their suffering, while making sure Illinois has the nation’s strictest safeguards to prevent abuse.”

All that was left was to vet those who would cultivate and distribute medical marijuana to patients who qualified. Compared to getting this through the Legislature and signed into law, this should have been the easy part.

Yet 17 months after Quinn quoted Mandela, he slipped out of office without signing off on rules for growers and dispensers of medical marijuana. We never got an explanation why Quinn left this important bit of work undone, but now it’s landed in the lap of Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Quinn already had signed the medical marijuana bill by the time he and Rauner squared off in the 2014 gubernatorial election, so the issue of medical marijuana per se was not the subject of debate in the campaign. Rauner, however, was strongly critical of the licensing process that was under way. He said it lacked transparency and therefore was open to manipulation by those seeking to profit from the new law.

“If we’re going to have this process, we should do it open, transparent,” Rauner said in September 2014.

At his first press conference after becoming governor, Rauner reiterated his suspicion of the licensing process for growers and dispensers. He also said he was committed to seeing the law put into action.

“What we now need to do is get immersed in the process and learn exactly the status. How’s it been managed, how’s it been run and look at whether we need to change anything that’s occurred,” Rauner said. “I have a concern — I expressed my concern during the campaign — that it looked like some folks had left the administration, they were playing lobbying roles, they were working with some of their friends to get some of these contracts. I’m concerned about the process. I don’t think it’s been run well. We’ll have to assess the situation once we get inside…

“I want to enforce the laws of the state and that particular law is on the books. I want to make sure it’s managed and run properly.”

Given Illinois’ long history of pay-to-play politics, Rauner’s concern over the licensing process hardly is frivolous. Anytime a brand new industry enters the state — gambling comes to mind — those with inside knowledge of its regulatory infrastructure and its key government decision-makers have an advantage for getting in on the ground floor.

Again, Rauner never criticized the law itself; just the vetting process of those who want to profit from it. We may never get a full explanation of why, nearly a year-and-a-half after he signed this bill into law amid much fanfare, Quinn let the paperwork fall to his successor. Perhaps we’ll learn that Rauner’s initial suspicions were well-founded.

None of this will be any consolation to the 650 approved patients who thought relief was on the way in mid-2013.

Compassionate indeed.

 NEXT ARTICLE Gov. Rauner’s first act: Undo Pat Quinn’s last acts




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