Illinois medical cannabis patients weigh in on full legalization proposal

Emily Gray Brosious

April 3, 2017: 3:08 PM CT

Illinois medical marijuana patients weigh in on recreational marijuana law(Photo credit: David McNew/Getty Images)

Illinois lawmakers recently introduced bills seeking to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, and medical marijuana patients and advocates across the state are responding to the news with mixed reactions.

Amanda “Manny” Coleman, an Illinois cannabis activist and patient advocate diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, strongly supports the full legalization proposal because she doesn’t think the medical cannabis program’s registration process is sensitive to people with her diagnosis.  

“I feel that as a PTSD patient, to be labeled as ‘disabled’ or ‘debilitated’ only further serves to enforce the negative connotations and stigmas surrounding mental health care, and being forced to register in order to receive treatment is disrespectful to my wishes for privacy and discretion,” Coleman told Extract. “No patient is forced to register for antidepressants in order to go to Walgreens or CVS.”

Coleman, who founded the advocacy group Illinois Citizens for Responsible Regulation, says legalizing marijuana for adult use would help restore “dignity and liberty” to people in her situation.

Senate Bill 316 and House Bill 2353 would make it legal for adults 21 and older to purchase, possess and grow marijuana for personal use. The measures, proposed by Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago and Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago, would give the state’s existing 51 medical marijuana dispensaries the opportunity to sell recreational cannabis for one year before state-licensed, non-medical cannabis retailers would be allowed to open as well.

The measures call for Illinois to enact a system of regulated marijuana sales, cultivation, processing and testing. The state would be tasked with licensing and regulating cannabis businesses and creating and enforcing a system of health and safety regulations. Testing and labeling would be mandatory for all cannabis products.  

Effingham resident David Kurfman, a registered Illinois patient who uses medical cannabis for epilepsy, wants to see clear distinctions between medical and recreational marijuana if the state passes full legalization.

Kurfman, 40, is an outspoken medical cannabis advocate and thinks the movement to legalize marijuana for full adult use owes a debt to the advocacy, hard work and sacrifices of medical cannabis patients. He doesn’t think the current proposals to legalize marijuana for adult use take that into account.

“You don’t get recreational on the backs of sick people. These types of bills must heavily impact medical patients for the better or I’m not interested,” Kurfman told Extract. “If it wasn’t for patient advocacy and all the social media and news articles about people benefitting from medical cannabis, I don’t think the state would be open to full legalization at all.”

Kurfman takes particular issue with the legalization proposals’ home-grow limits, which would cap home cultivation at five mature plants for patients and recreational consumers alike.

Currently, Illinois’ medical cannabis program doesn’t allow patients to grow their own marijuana at home. Medical cannabis also isn’t covered by medical insurers, and many patients cannot afford the costs of their medication each month. Kurfman says the ability to grow marijuana at home would help with affordability, but he thinks the five-plant limit is too tight for medical cannabis patients – especially patients who need to experiment with different strains and varieties.

“I think recreational is inevitable, and I’m not opposed to it. I just hope it helps the patients,” he said.

Illinois’ Medical Cannabis Pilot Program took effect in 2013 and became operational in 2015. As of March 1, 2017, the state health department had approved approximately 16,990 qualifying patients for the program.

Joel Erickson, a medical cannabis patient-advocate and industry analyst based in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, welcomes the prospect of legalizing marijuana for adult use, partially because he sees significant problems with the current medical-only program.

“Illinois has a restrictive medical cannabis system and lots of people with chronic conditions can’t get into the program,” Erickson told Extract.

He says the state’s reluctance to expand its list of qualifying conditions, and the medical marijuana program’s ban on convicted drug felons, are two main reasons why many people who could benefit from medical cannabis still can’t access the drug in Illinois.

“Legalizing adult use marijuana is one way around that,” Erickson said.

Kalee Hooghkirk, a medical cannabis patient and wellness specialist working in Illinois’ cannabis industry, is a little more more hesitant to embrace proposed recreational legalization measures.

“We’ve been working so hard to break the stigma, and it’s a little complicated with the recreational legalization aspect,” Hooghkirk told Extract. “I think to develop this as a medicine and a science, the focus needs to be medical.”

She also worries the introduction of recreational users may exacerbate supply problems for patients. She’s already seen some low-supply issues crop up for products like high-CBD medical cannabis oils in Illinois dispensaries, she said.

“When Colorado went from medical to recreational, I know quality and availability were a problem, so I hope Illinois takes a different path,” she said.

Many Illinois medical cannabis patients suspect marijuana will inevitably be legalized for adult use. And most patients who spoke with Extract are supportive of full legalization, so long as it protects and benefits medical cannabis patients in the state.

The broader public also supports full legalization, according to polling results released March 27 from Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, which found 66 percent of Illinoisans support regulating and taxing marijuana for adult use.

Illinois’ proposed legalization measures likely won’t be called for a vote until next year, the Chicago Tribune reports, but House Bill 2353 has already picked up at least eight co-sponsors.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has taken some heat for his reluctance to expand Illinois’ medical cannabis program, and many see him as a likely opponent of the legalization proposals. Rauner is up for reelection next year.

“Right now, we are skeptical about getting this done under Rauner, and we’re skeptical that legislators would have the vote to override the governor’s veto,” Kelvin McCabe, criminal defense attorney and a board member of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Extract. “But there’s an election in 2018, and I don’t necessarily think Rauner’s going to get re-elected. If we get a new governor who’s more open to legalization, it could happen.”

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Related slideshow:

Peek inside one of Illinois’ cannabis cultivation facilities

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See also:

• Illinois medical marijuana ban on drug felons raises discrimination concerns

• If you’re poor in America, good luck getting medical marijuana

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