POLITICS
01/05/2015 07:23 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Medical Marijuana Has Been Legal In Illinois For A Year, But A Single Patient Has Yet To Benefit

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Medical marijuana has been legal in Illinois for more than 365 days, but the number of patients that have actually been able to get relief from the drug remains a big fat zero.

While 600 local patients have already been approved for a medical marijuana card, there's no place to actually buy the stuff. And after the state recently blew its self-imposed deadline to award business licenses to medical marijuana growers and dispensaries by the end of 2014, not a single business can even plant pot seeds.

“Illinois is the worst at anything having to do [with] medicine -- or alternative [treatment],” Claire Mooney, a 39-year-old acupuncturist in Chicago, told The Huffington Post. Mooney applied in November for a medical marijuana card, hoping to ease muscle rigidity, pain and other symptoms caused by her multiple sclerosis.

Though she's frustrated by the state's timing, she said she's also not surprised by it. “It goes on the timeline I thought it would be on, given the bureaucracy of Illinois.”

Despite the growing frustration among would-be medical marijuana patients like Mooney, it might not be time to lose heart entirely -- so says Ali Nagib, the assistant director for the Illinois arm of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Other than the fact that for many patients, any delay is too long, it’s not an unexpected delay for people who have been following it,” Nagib said. “If you go back and listen to floor debates in 2013, they were anticipating -- even at that time -- a year of rulemaking. In that sense, it’s not unexpected [the licensing has] taken that long."

But with a gubernatorial administration hand-off less than a week away, continued delays to the business licensing could see new variables emerge in an already complex landscape.

Outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn, considered a medical marijuana advocate, on Sunday told the Chicago Sun-Times of the state's licensing delay: "It is a complicated law and we're working on it as best we can. There's a lot of research to be done, and it has to be done right."

In less than a week, Quinn's term ends, and the licensing falls under the purview of Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, who criticized the law in the past.

“We don’t expect any major changes to the rules under [Rauner]," Nagib noted. "We simply don’t know how he’s going to implement this law. There are a lot of ways he could obstruct it if he chooses, and there are a lot of ways he could expedite it, too.”

Neither Quinn nor Rauner's office immediately replied when reached for comment.

Regardless of which administration issues the business licenses, Nagib said Illinois' medical marijuana patients are effectively "all dressed up, with no place to go."

Katelyn Harper, a 23-year-old Chicagoan who suffers from Crohn’s disease, told HuffPost she's not surprised by the long wait for medical marijuana access but remains hopeful that policy makers will avoid unnecessary delays.

“We are real people who have real lives, real jobs, friends, family," Harper said of her fellow patients who suffer from chronic illness. "[Medical marijuana] will not just benefit patients, it’ll benefit all of those people, too."

On the spectrum of states handling weed legislation, those like California and Colorado -- which legalized medical marijuana but have fewer regulations on the substance than Illinois does -- moved fastest from legalization to actual access, according to Nagib. At the other end of the spectrum is Massachusetts, still waiting on access to medical marijuana despite voters overwhelmingly approving it on a ballot measure more than two years ago.

"One criticism was that [Illinois' law] doesn’t allow for home cultivation," Nagib said. "If that provision had been in this bill, patients could have access already.”

Mooney said the dearth of licensed marijuana businesses in Illinois means patients are being denied not only access to the drug, but guidance as to which strains will best help certain conditions.

“For my multiple sclerosis, I’ve found [specific types of marijuana] very helpful,” Mooney said, noting that without licensed dispensaries, finding and using the best strain is a challenge. “I just have to scour the streets for my Maui Waui," she added, referring to the name of a strain of marijuana.

Nagib said most advocates and lawmakers are anticipating that patients will have medical marijuana access sometime between late spring and early fall of this year.

“I think this next week is going to be very telling," he said. "We’ll see if things move or not. If we get to 2015 and there’s still no patient access, I’d consider that to be a significant failure.”

HuffPost

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