Closer Look

Pot Unpacked

Courtesy of Dank Depot

Marijuana. Reefer. Weed. Ganja. Green. Mary Jane. Pot. Loud. Call it what you will, but it’s in Illinois to stay — legally. Any time a substance changes from an illegal street drug to a medicine cabinet staple, it’s bound to raise a lot of questions. The PHOENIX is here to answer all your bud-based queries.

What’s the deal with medical marijuana?

Back in 2013, then-Gov. Pat Quinn caused a stir when he signed the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act into law, making Illinois the 21st state to legalize medical marijuana.

The four-year pilot program aims to give marijuana to patients with conditions that often cause chronic pain, nausea and sleeplessness. Patients will need a prescription from a doctor to obtain the marijuana. No more than 60 marijuana-only dispensaries — clinics where patients can pick up their prescriptions — and 21 growing sites are expected to be sprinkled throughout the state.

Those who have one of the 35-plus pre-approved medical conditions can buy up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. To put that in perspective, a 2009 RAND Drug Policy Research Center study found that one joint typically has 0.3-0.5 grams of weed in it. There are about 28 grams in one ounce, which means that a person could make roughly 60 joints out of just one ounce of marijuana. Or as the Denver Post put it, it’s a keg of pot.

So what’s going on now? 

Things got complicated quickly after Quinn signed the bill. It passed in 2013, but it didn’t go into effect until January 2014. Over that time, more information came out about the tricky application process to open a dispensary or cultivation center.

Entrepreneurs looking for a license to open a dispensary or become a grower met with Illinois-brand bureaucratic roadblocks left and right. To apply for a license, dispensers had to have $400,000 in liquid assets, diagrams and photos of the planned facilities and a thorough plan for creating the dispensary, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Potential growers met with their own problems: Few marijuana growers with 10 to 20 years of experience come with a clean background. Michael Mayes, CEO of Quantum 9, a Chicago-based marijuana industry consultant, said in an interview with the Associated Press that many of them have minor or major drug offenses on their records.

Only marijuana grown in Illinois can be sold at dispensaries. Patients will not be able to grow marijuana in their homes.

Then Quinn left office this past January before issuing the licenses. The whole process was turned over to Gov. Bruce Rauner, who published a list of licensed dispensaries and cultivation sites on Feb. 2. It was one of his first acts after taking office on Jan. 12. Neither the Rauner nor Quinn administration made the reasoning clear for disqualifying certain applicants.

Rauner also handed out those licenses before state-mandated federal background checks could be completed. About 1,000 patients were also approved for the program without a federal criminal check, according to the Associated Press.

It’s hard to tell if the background checks will pull up any past charges against distributors and if the state will consider revoking licenses.

The program is still moving forward, however, and ome patients are petitioning to expand the list of medical conditions that qualify for medical marijuana treatment. The state’s pilot program website reports that 14,000 citizens have started signing up for the program to get a prescription since the government began accepting applications in September 2014.

Who can actually get a prescription? 

Anyone who wants a prescription must be at least 18 years old and a resident of Illinois. Children will have access to marijuana if they have permission from a parent or legal guardian and a prescription approved by two doctors.

There’s a long list of conditions that qualify for treatment with marijuana, all of which cause chronic pain, nausea, sleeplessness and/or other disrupting symptoms. The list includes cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, ALS, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

Dispensaries are expected to sell paraphernalia and marijuana as baked goods, oils, topical ointments, etc. Patients will also be able to buy marijuana to vaporize or dried buds to smoke. Different medical conditions need various types of cannabis. For example, people with lung cancer who can’t smoke a joint are better off using edibles.

Where can you use medical marijuana? 

Medical marijuana can only be used in a private home. Cannabis can’t be used in any public spaces or school buses. There is a 1,000-foot buffer zone around schools, and medical marijuana users can’t smoke around someone under 18 years old. Private employers will have the chance to make rules about whether employees will be able to keep or consume marijuana at work.

Will there be a dispensary near Loyola? 

Chicago is slotted to get 13 dispensaries. Several places were given the go-ahead on Rauner’s list, but others are still on hold.

As The PHOENIX reported on Feb. 18, Rogers Park may be home to one of the first dispensaries in the state this summer.

The governor also gave the OK to Professional Pharmacy Management in Wicker Park, the Cannabis Group in Andersonville and MedMar in Lakeview. Evanston is set to get a dispensary near the Purple Line Davis stop.

There has to be a downside, right? 

Some people are skeptical about marijuana’s benefits as medicine. The American Medical Association still stands opposed to legalizing medical marijuana.

In the past, it’s been difficult to get funding in the United States for clinical trials to test cannabis’ effectiveness because of its federal status as an illegal and dangerous drug. Most of the evidence supporting the therapeutic uses of marijuana comes from user testaments and historical arguments.

Still, there are no studies that prove the drug has long-lasting negative effects aside from higher incidences of chronic bronchitis, according to Science magazine. Some early data have linked marijuana to an increased risk of schizophrenia. Likewise, a Northwestern University study pointed to abnormalities in the brains of teens who used marijuana recreationally. For now, though, the research remains too thin to know for certain.

So what’s next? 

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for a decriminalization of marijuana statewide, modeled after the Chicago law that allows cops to give people who have 15 grams or less of pot on them a ticket instead of taking them to jail. Lawmakers in the Illinois House are working on the details of the bill, but they aren’t likely to vote on it anytime soon.

Some advocates are hoping Illinois’ move to legalize medical marijuana may open the door for recreational use. Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, told CBS Chicago that legislation may be introduced this year and may become a reality in three to seven years.

Illinois stands to make a lot of money off of marijuana — medical and recreational. The Associated Press reported that a market research group expects the Illinois marijuana market to reach $36 million in 2016. Kane-Willis estimated that selling pot on the open market could make Illinois $125 million in a year.

For a cash-strapped state, that doesn’t sound too bad.

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