Medical marijuana in Illinois is way behind schedule leaving more a thousand patients out in the cold. (Laurie Avacado/Creative Commons)

Illinois remains lethargic on medical marijuana

By Ezra Kaplan

Marla Levi is a 52-year-old Chicagoan with multiple sclerosis. With the support of her doctor, she applied and was accepted into the state-funded Medical Cannabis Pilot Program. This means that she qualifies and has a medical need for medical marijuana. It has been nearly three months since she got her papers but she has yet to fill the prescription.

The law that allows medical marijuana also stipulates that it must come from the state. But Illinois hasn’t grown any marijuana.

Sound like a Catch-22?

It is.

As the U.S. Senate considers a bill to allow medical marijuana, patients in Illinois continue to depend on the black market to get their state sanctioned cannabis.

It has been over a year and a half since former Governor Pat Quinn signed the act calling for the creation of a medical cannabis pilot program. In that time 54 dispensaries have been authorized and 18 cultivation centers have been approved. Yet the 1,600 patients who have been accepted into the pilot program have nowhere to get the medicine the state says they qualify for.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of growing marijuana for the program, stated: “The State will be working to implement the Pilot Program as quickly and safely as possible.” Though they provided no definitive timeline.

“I did the paperwork. I have the letters,” Levi said. “But where do I go? I can’t get my medicine. The politicians don’t care about the patients.”

Marla Levi uses medical marijuana to help treat her multiple sclerosis. Although she is enrolled in the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, she still resorts to the black market for her marijuana. A year and a half after the law was signed, Illinois has yet to provide medical marijuana to medical patients.
Marla Levi uses medical marijuana to help treat her multiple sclerosis. Although she is enrolled in the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, she has to resort to the black market for her marijuana. A year and a half after the law was signed, Illinois has yet to provide medical marijuana to medical patients. (Ezra Kaplan/Medill)

Until the program is up and running many patients, including Levi, continue to rely on the black market to get the medicine they need.

The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act was sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang, D-16, and went into effect on New Years Day 2014. The pilot program is set to run through 2018 when it will expire unless the Illinois General Assembly takes action.

“The law is not perfect but it is a step in the right direction for helping seriously ill people,” said the Illinois Chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) in a recent statement on their website.

According to Dan Linn, the executive director of Illinois NORML, the state has been dragging its feet in implementing the law. “It has been over a year and no medicine has become available yet,” Linn said.

And for drug use prevention experts, that is not such a bad thing.

“I am concerned that what we will begin to see is that we’re going to have more kids starting to use marijuana on a regular basis,” said Karel Homrig, the executive director at Prevention First, an Illinois based organization working to reduce drug use in young people.

Homrig said adolescents are still developing both in their bodies and in their brains. She added that marijuana posses a unique and increased risk to cause harm in these young people.

“Our biggest concern is that when you introduce a medical marijuana program, you are already sending a message that marijuana is medicine,” said Homrig, pointing out that marijuana has not gone through the FDA certification process. “It sends a message that marijuana is not as harmful as what we have been told in the past.”

And that is precisely the message that advocates are trying to get across.

Julie Falco has been using “cannabinoid therapy” since 2004 to help treat her multiple sclerosis.

Julie Falco advocated for the law that established the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program over a year and a half ago. Now she can't get access to the program as a result of obstacles and hurdles written into the law.
Julie Falco advocated for the law that established the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program over a year and a half ago. Now she can’t get access to the program as a result of obstacles and hurdles written into the law. (Ezra Kaplan/Medill)

Falco finds that the cannabis gives her a quality of life that far surpasses what she experienced when she was taking the drugs her doctors were prescribing.

“I was in a very heavy cloud of pharmaceutical side effects without realizing that they were side effects,” Falco said. “I thought it was just the MS.”

The cannabis has helped her in ways she never expected. From relaxing the spastic muscles in her legs to improving her ability to walk, Falco began to feel some hope for the future. She said using marijuana even helped alleviate serious depression.

The cannabis was so effective that Falco was able to slowly wean herself off almost all of her prescribed medications. By 2007 she was only taking one pharmaceutical, down from eight before the cannabinoid therapy.

Julie Falco chooses to use edible cannabis to help treat her multiple sclerosis. She finds it is much more effective that the alternative of smoking.
Julie Falco uses edible cannabis for her multiple sclerosis. She finds it is much more effective than the alternative of smoking. (Ezra Kaplan/Medill)

Falco’s satisfaction drove her to become an advocate and she helped lead the effort to get medical cannabis legislation passed. She said that along the way, major concessions were made and there are “major obstacles to even get through the system, through the paper work.”

Now she can’t get access to the program she helped create.

The first hurdle was a $100 fee required just to apply to the pilot program. For Falco, who is on disability, this was a hefty sum.

Next was the state mandated fingerprinting, another part of the multi-page application.

“The whole fingerprinting thing is absurd to me,” Falco said. For her it is especially challenging given that she is homebound and unable to get to a fingerprinting facility.

And the final nail in the coffin was when her doctor moved away during her application process forcing her to start again from scratch, including paying the fee a second time.

Even through all of her difficulties, Falco remains optimistic about the future of medical cannabis in Illinois. She said she is proud of the work she has done, and continues to do, with the pilot program.

“At least its something,” Falco said. “It was a way to get our foot in the door.”

Photo at top: Medical marijuana in Illinois is way behind schedule leaving more a thousand patients out in the cold. (Laurie Avocado/Creative Commons)