By Dilpreet Raju
For the second time in a month on Jan. 25, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) extended the variance allowing curbside pickup for the state’s medical marijuana patients.
Yet curbside pickup — or any pickup — is unavailable in many areas of the state with nearly two-thirds of marijuana dispensaries located in Cook, DuPage, Lake, Will and McHenry counties.
Illinois has seen the number of dispensaries licensed to sell to medical patients stall at 55 since 2018, with 33 of those located in the five Chicago-area counties.
2020 brought about adult-use legalization, with it came a rush of sales, a massive stream of state tax funding and a growing disinterest in medical patients.
Since recreational weed was ushered in, 61 adult-use-only dispensaries have opened, with more potentially on the way.
According to the Illinois Medical Cannabis Patient Program, there are 137,138 active medical patients.
“Access inequity can leave medical patients without viable options within their communities,” wrote Laura Saltzman, transportation analyst at Access Living, a Chicago-based civil rights group focused on supporting Chicagoans living with disability.
“More (medical) dispensaries should include curbside options as it is a necessary accommodation for those with disabilities or immunodeficiencies,” she wrote in a statement to Medill Reports.
Medill Reports mapped out every dual-purpose dispensary — cannabis dispensers licensed for both medical and recreational sales — and checked if each offered curbside to their medical patients.
On Jan. 25, Cecilia Abundis, director of the division of professional regulation, issued the second variance extending the life of curbside pickup for another six months through June 30.
The IDFPR had issued a notice on Dec. 29 to all the state’s medical marijuana dispensers, alerting them the original variance allowing curbside was to expire Jan. 1.
Then, on Jan. 3, Abundis extended curbside for one month through Jan. 31.
The variance established by the IDFPR, the regulatory arm of Illinois’ cannabis market, is centered around the security and recordkeeping subsection of the medical marijuana program law. The IDFPR did not respond to requests for comment.
Even with the extension through June 30, there are only 20 dual-purpose dispensaries — just over a third of all medical dispensaries — across the entire state that currently provide curbside pickup.
“More dispensaries should offer curbside pickup for accessibility reasons as not everyone can navigate transit, entry and pickup,” Saltzman wrote.
A few multistate operators, companies that own dispensaries in multiple states, have 10 total dispensaries — the maximum amount Illinois allows an operator to run. Yet only one corporation, Green Thumb Industries, offers curbside or drive-thru services at all their dual-purpose dispensaries.
Some multistate operators such as PharmaCann and Cresco Labs, who own Verilife and Sunnyside, respectively, have no dispensaries offering curbside pickup.
Cresco Labs and PharmaCann did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
“Entities that are providing a service need to be accessible for people with disabilities,” said Barry Taylor, attorney and vice president of the Civil Rights Team at Equip for Equality, a legal and advocacy group for people living with disabilities in Illinois.
“Curbside access is convenient, but sometimes it’s a substitution for actual accessibility of the particular facility,” Taylor said. “For people living with disability who want to go into the facility, that should be the first option.”
Despite the increasing number of variances, as of Feb. 1, no legislation has been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly to codify curbside pickup for medical patients.
Taylor said if curbside pickup makes sense for someone’s disability, they “would be entitled to curbside as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So even if the state removes (the variance) as an option for the general public, we would argue that have that option.”
Many longtime Illinois medical patients, like Chad Carr, feel forgotten by the state and fed up with the industry.
Carr got his medical card during the pilot program in 2014, back when Illinois mandated background checks and fingerprinting for all applicants.
Since 2014, the Illinois Department of Public Health, which regulates the medical cannabis pilot program, relaxed the measures of not only who could get a medical card but also how someone gets one.
“You’re forced to pay a certain price,” said Kevin Kovach, an Illinois medical marijuana patient of over three years.
Kovach, who works at Hatch Dispensary in Addison, a dual-purpose facility, said a “majority of the customers” for medical marijuana are “trying to find the best deal that they can.”
Kovach said “a lot of pricing for eighths (of marijuana)” is common across the state. Without sales or discounts, patients are “forced to pay $60 no matter what quality, no matter what cultivator.”
Carr shared multiple receipts from 2018 where 3.5 grams, or one-eighth of an ounce, of branded marijuana ranged from $30 to $40 standard pricing.
“The prices didn’t really start going up until legalization (for adult-) got close,” Carr said. “You’re not supposed to be paying this much after being in the program.”
Medical patients can grow up to five plants in a private residence, but patients without a private residence, like those living in federally assisted housing, are out of luck.
“I live in Section 8 housing, so I can’t grow pot. I’m on disability and I still have to pay f—– $500 a month for my medicine,” Carr said.
Dilpreet Raju is a health, environment and science graduate student at Medill. You can follow him at @DilpreetRaju on Twitter.