Update on Illinois Cannabis: Implementing the Medical Marijuana Program

​​​​​On Thursday, September 10, Governor Bruce Rauner halted further expansion of the Illinois Medical Marijuana Pilot program. The Rauner administration refused to extend the list of medical conditions that can be treated by medical marijuana, stressing the program was still in its premature days and further evaluation is needed before expansion. “The pilot program​ is moving forward, but remains in its early stage,” said Rauner.

Illinois Medical Marijuana Pilot program was enacted on January 1st 2014 with the purpose of protecting both patients with impairing illnesses and health care providers from prosecution in prescribing or recommending the medical use of cannabis. An advisory board appointed by former Governor Pat Quinn manages the expansion of the pilot program. The board reviews petitions from Illinois residents to add medical conditions that benefit from the medical use of cannabis. Since the pilot program’s enactment, approximately 3,000 Illinois residents are deemed eligible for medical marijuana and the state has six cultivation centers set to receive IDs for Marijuana workers to begin growing marijuana for medical use.  Despite the progress that has been made, however, eligible patients have difficulty receiving medical cannabis. Currently the state only has two dispensaries, and only one located in Chicago. Thus, while the state begins to cultivate cannabis for medical reasons and approves patients for its use, there are few outlets patients can actually purchase cannabis from. This illustrates the tense situation Illinois faces in route to implementing a successful medical cannabis program.

On one hand, the Rauner administration and it’s proponents articulate the fact that the Illinois medical program is in a premature state​ and expansion is unwarranted. In explaining his decision​ to expand the pilot program, Rauner said “
No pat​ients have yet been served and, consequently, the state has not had the opportunity to evaluate the benefits and costs of the pilot program or determine areas for improvement or even whether to extend the program beyond its pilot program.” Additionally, extending the pilot program without careful deliberation can have not only medical drawbacks but can be costly. A recent dispensary in Mundelein had an estimated cost of $1 million. 

Proponents of expansion argue refusal to expand the pilot program puts Illinois’ medical cannabis program at a stalemate. Patients experiencing medical conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana are forced to take other pharmaceutical drugs that may not be as effective for their conditions. Furthermore, as medical marijuana is mainly for patients experiencing debilitating illnesses, the health of potential patients continues to deteriorate as they wait for the opportunity to use medical marijuana.

The recent refusal to expand the pilot program included a rejecting the addition of
eleven conditions recommended by the advisory board as suitable for treatment by medical cannabis. Leslie Mendoza Temple, a Chicago Physician and chair of the advisory board, expressed her disappointment at the Rauner administration’s decision. “I’m disappointed after how hard we worked as a board to review the medical evidence and hear patient testimony…I’m disappointed most of all for my patients… It leaves us fewer options to control their pain and suffering.” One of the conditions within the board’s recommendation was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a common illness among veterans. Supporters of adding PTSD to the pilot program said the Rauner administration’s decision was disrespectful to veterans​. “[Vet​erans] gave their lives, health and freedom to serve us and today our governor, who is the head of our state, let them down,” said Sandy Champion, wife of veteran Jim Champion who suffers from multiple sclerosis.

Another drawback in Illinois’ medical marijuana program is the difficulty employees face in the workplace. Although the pilot program prohibits discrimination by employers against employees that are registered to use medical marijuana, the
law still gives employers the opportunity to adopt regulations governing the consumption of medical marijuana by employees and enforcing drug tests, zero-tolerance, and drug free workplace policies. Moreover, the law does not provide any loophole from the federal Controlled Substances Act, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, further putting employers in a tough position.  As a result, Illinois employers face a struggle between complying with federal law and adopting reasonable drug policies out of fear​ that workers’ compensation and liability insurance providers will not reimburse expenses. This struggle creates low job security for employees registered to use medical marijuana.

The governor’s refusal to expand the pilot program coupled with a stagnant progress in the cultivation of marijuana, a low supply of dispensaries, and low job security for medical marijuana using employees has placed the entire Illinois medical cannabis program in gridlock. As the medical community increasingly accepts marijuana as a viable treatment and states continue to legalize its use, barriers to patients’ use of medical marijuana will continually hinder the growth of medical marijuana programs. For patients facing debilitating illnesses, medical marijuana can be a successful treatment option for many and in some cases, perhaps the best. Unless Illinois begins to effectively move forward in its medical marijuana program, patients will continue to be left in a state of limbo unable to seek proper treatment for their illnesses. 

​Faizan A. Khan is a second year law student at DePaul University College of Law. Mr. Khan graduated summa cum laude from DePaul University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Economics. He is a member of DePaul's Health Law Institute and will complete his J.D. in 2017.