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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 12:01 am

Medical pot regulations approved

Program ready to be implemented

Dan Linn, executive director of the marijuana advocacy group Illinois NORML, holds a canister used by the federal government to mail marijuana to one of the last remaining participants in the federal medical marijuana program that began in 1978. In May, Linn and others spoke at a public hearing in favor of making medical marijuana easier and cheaper to use under Illinois’ fledgling program.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

Medical marijuana has cleared a major hurdle to implementation in Illinois, with a panel of state lawmakers approving regulations for the pilot program. Now all that remains is licensing the growers and dispensaries which will provide the marijuana.

The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted to approve regulations in July for the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, following months of public hearings. Four state agencies had to draft rules for licensing, safety, taxation and distribution of medical marijuana, and the adoption of the rules means certain Illinoisans could begin legally smoking marijuana within months. However, the drug remains illegal at the federal level, and Illinois’ program is strictly limited.

State regulators drove that point home last week when they filed a complaint against Dr. Joseph Starkman, whose “Integr8 Illinois” clinic in Highland Park had begun marketing itself as a medical marijuana clinic in 2013. According to the complaint by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, Starkman gave at least one patient a certificate indicating that the patient was approved to use medical marijuana for glaucoma, despite Starkman not having performed an eye exam on the patient.

The program’s rules require an existing doctor-patient relationship before a doctor can refer a patient to use medical marijuana. Additionally, IDFPR says it has not issued any certificate forms for medical marijuana referrals, so Starkman’s certificate was invalid. He faces possible discipline or even revocation of his medical license.

Even if Starkman’s certificate had been valid, the patient would not have been able to legally access medical marijuana yet, because the state hasn’t issued any licenses to marijuana growers or dispensaries. That process started shortly after lawmakers approved the regulations, but the first licenses probably won’t be approved until next year.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill in July including epilepsy in the list of illnesses for which marijuana may be used. The new law also allows qualified patients under the age of 18 to use products infused with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Those patients will not be allowed to smoke marijuana, and they will still have to register with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

During public hearings on the program regulations, potential users complained about the expected cost and requirements to obtain permission to participate, including fingerprinting and background checks. State regulators did reduce some of the costs for patients to apply for permission to use medical marijuana, but the high cost for grower and dispensary licenses has some concerned that only wealthy and politically connected individuals and companies will be able to cash in on this potentially lucrative industry.

“My biggest concern is the cost of the program and so much involvement with law enforcement, fingerprinting folks just to get a card,” said William Bishop III of Springfield at a public hearing in May.

Bishop told state regulators at the hearing that many minorities and low-income people don’t have an established relationship with a doctor, which would preclude them from getting relief from marijuana under the regulations.

“This will eliminate poor people and minorities from the program, and you really need to address these issues,” he said.

Illinois’ medical marijuana program comes amid a wave of changes regarding pot nationwide. Several states have implemented medical marijuana programs or decriminalized possession of marijuana, while Washington and Colorado have legalized it entirely – even for recreational use.  Even the Obama Administration has given lip service to the notion of repealing the federal ban on pot. The changes are driven in part by tight state budgets that have necessitated states reexamining the amount of money they spend on incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders, as well as claims that marijuana criminalization disproportionately targets African-Americans and low-income populations.

For more information on Illinois’ medical marijuana pilot program, visit mcpp.illinois.gov.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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