International Cannabis And Hemp Expo Held In San Francisco(Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Down but not out: Illinois’ medical cannabis program rolls out slow but hopeful

It’s been a slow burn for medical marijuana in Illinois over the past few months.

The state’s relatively strict medical cannabis pilot program kicked off last November and has been plagued by low patient numbers and very little political support from current Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration thus far.

Despite the obstacles and slow growth, the state cannabis industry is pushing forward and maintaining a relatively positive outlook. And some say the slow rollout has even created a unique camaraderie among cannabis companies, operators and patients in the state.

“The first thing you have to do in the industry is be an advocate,” Illinois cannabis enthusiast and advocate Mark Francis told Extract in an interview Monday evening at Chicago’s monthly Cannabis Technology Meetup at tech incubator 1871.

Francis is new to the cannabis industry, recently landing an internship with Illinois cannabis cultivator Cresco Labs, but his passion and advocacy for medical cannabis are plainly evident – like many in the state’s cannabis community.

Given the new and strict nature of the state pilot program, Illinois cannabis businesses and dispensary operators are being careful to take on employees that are strong patient advocates and positive brand ambassadors for medical cannabis, Amanda Guerrero, talent acquisition lead at CannaMed Talent Solutions, told Extract.

“Everyone wants to get in on the industry right now, so we make sure the people getting in are doing it for the right reasons,” Guerrero said.

1Chicago CannaTech meet up on March 28, 2016 at the technology incubator called 1871. (Photo credit: Emily Gray Brosious)

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Many people working in Illinois’ medical cannabis industry are patients themselves.

People like Shea Evans, director of patient outreach at Chicago dispensary Modern Cannabis, who spoke to the group gathered at Monday’s CannaTech meetup.

Evans was diagnosed with lupus and needed a hip replacement at the age of 23, which meant she was taking up to 14 prescription medications at one point.

She turned to medical cannabis because opiates were destroying her quality of life, and she wanted to get off the prescription pills.

“Thanks to cannabis I’ve been opiate free for five years,” Evans said. “Cannabis is the reason I’m a productive person.”

As a patient herself, Evans understands the obstacles her clients face and she’s a strong patient advocate.

Illinois has not invested in any sort of public education for its medical cannabis pilot program so many patients need people like Evans to show them the ropes.

cannatechmeetup1Chicago CannaTech meet up at the technology incubator called 1871. (Photo credit: Emily Gray Brosious)

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Illinois’ Department of Public health has approved 5,000 patients for medical cannabis since it began accepting applications in September 2014, according to the state pilot program website.

But business owners say they need to see patient numbers rise to 20,000 or 30,000 in the next six months to remain afloat, as reported by the Daily Herald.

Low patient numbers have been attributed to state politics, reluctance among the medical community and a limited list of conditions that qualify for medical cannabis.

Advocates had been pushing Rauner to expand the state’s list of qualifying conditions to include PTSD, chronic pain, sleep disorders and more, but the governor declined to do so earlier this year.

Zach Marburger, chief information officer at Cresco Labs, says there’s no consensus about whether or not Illinois’ tight restrictions are ultimately positive or negative for the future of medical cannabis, but he thinks the tight restrictions might help legitimize the state’s industry in the long run.

“I’ll tell you what, more states are going to follow the medical marijuana model Illinois has adopted than Colorado’s system,” Marburger said at Monday’s CannaTech meetup, which he organizes.

“Operators here are as good as it gets — there are lots of shady characters out West,” he said.

Illinois’ pilot program, which was passed in 2014 by former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and became operational in November 2015, is set to expire in 2018. Most industry insiders seem confident the program will be extended, however.

Ryan Pollock, CannaMed Talent Solutions principal and head of business development, says the state’s slow program rollout has definitely affected his company, but he remains optimistic about the long-term outlook for Illinois’ medical cannabis industry.

He thinks business will start picking up again in Illinois after the pilot program is renewed in 2018.

In the meantime, Pollock told Extract he’s exploring business opportunities in other states with more robust medical cannabis programs.

“It’s the beginning stage of a huge industry in Illinois,” Pollock said. “But it’s sort of about who can weather the storm right now.

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Related gallery: State medical marijuana report cards

How well does your state treat medical cannabis patients?

1. Alaska (D-)
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*Category scores in the above gallery are out of 100 possible points each. State evaluations via Americans for Safe Access.