October 26, 2016: 11:46 AM CT
• Illinois’ medical marijuana program is growing, but the application process remains a hurdle for many.
• One Chicago-based cannabis attorney aims to clarify the application process with a free “How-to-Guide” for hopeful patients.
Illinois’ Medical Cannabis Pilot Program became operational in November 2015 and has been slowly but surely expanding over the past year.
With at least 45 licensed dispensaries operating across the state, nearly $22 million in retail purchases so far this year, recent approval to include post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition and an extension of the pilot program for an additional four years (to July 2020), things are generally looking up for the state’s once fledgling medical marijuana program.
“When the pilot program got extended, I think there was a collective sigh in the industry — a sense that the industry has real momentum,” Michael Neville, an associate attorney at Fox Rothschild specializing in cannabis law, told Extract.
“It’s becoming less and less taboo,” he said. “There’s a growing sense that this is real medicine.”
Despite the progress, Illinois patient numbers remain relatively low compared to other medical marijuana states. As of Oct. 5, 2016, the Illinois Department of Public Health had approved approximately 11,100 qualifying patients.
According to data compiled by Marijuana Policy Project, just about 0.09 percent of Illinois’ total population are medical marijuana patients, compared with 1.46 percent in Arizona, 1.84 percent in California, 2.05 percent in Michigan and 3.84 percent in Maine. Only two states with operational medical marijuana programs have lower patient percentages than Illinois: New York (0.04 percent) and Minnesota (0.05 percent).
There may be many reasons for Illinois’ relatively low patient population, but three particular factors stand out: the newness of the program, a complicated patient application process and tight program restrictions.
For example, qualifying patients in Illinois must be diagnosed with one of 40 debilitating medical conditions on the state’s approved list, which includes conditions such as HIV, AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Chronic pain, insomnia and other more common ailments are not included on Illinois’ approved list, but are in approved in states with higher patient numbers, including California, Arizona, Alaska and Michigan.
Neville says he’s heard medical cannabis can be very effective for chronic pain, but he’s not sure if the condition has any real chance of being approved in Illinois.
“There’s a feeling among certain parties that adding chronic pain to Illinois’ medical marijuana program is sort of like a slippery slope to recreational,” he said. “One of the things that sold medical marijuana to legislators in Illinois was the limited nature of the program in this state.”
Although Neville and his colleagues at Fox Rothschild largely deal with cannabis businesses and industry folks, he recently compiled a comprehensive how-to guide for patients seeking guidance about how to apply for a medical marijuana card in Illinois.
“It wouldn’t really make sense for patients to incur the costs of attorneys’ fees to get the medical marijuana card,” Neville explained. “But for many patients, I think the application requirements are a bit daunting.”