Top 5 Biggest Problems With Illinois' Medical Marijuana Program

02/03/2016 11:29 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2017

The Illinois medical marijuana program is about two years into its four-year pilot period, but some patients and advocates say there are still plenty of kinks to work out. From high costs to low customer turnout, here's a list of five problems patients and activists cite with the Illinois program so far.

1) Not enough approved conditions

Illinois has approved 39 conditions that warrant the use of medical marijuana, but some advocates say the state is missing a few big ones -- like post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. Illinois officials have accepting petitions to add new conditions to the list, and the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board is recommending eight new conditions, including PTSD, chronic pain due to trauma and autism be approved.

But that decision is all up to Gov. Bruce Rauner. He already turned down the board's recommendation to add 11 new conditions last September, before dispensaries even opened.

Some veterans suffering from PTSD are calling on the governor to allow those new additions. At a press conference, Medical Cannabis Outreach founder Caprice Sweatt argued the prescription drugs available for patients can be dangerous, while marijuana doesn't cause some of the more serious side effects.

Vietnam veteran Lon Hodge said the psychotropic medications he used after his PTSD diagnosis were extremely damaging to his career as a professor and public speaker -- he described his condition as a "creative lobotomy."

"Those of us who suffer with PTSD to the extent that I do, we say we often carry suicide like a challenge coin in our pocket," Hodge said, "I don't want that for anybody else. Legalize this."

2) Fear of "pot doctors"

Hopeful medical marijuana patients need a doctor's signature before they qualify for the state-issued ID they need in order to get medical marijuana. Illinois' oversight is tougher than some other states -- at least four doctors have been accused of providing marijuana recommendations without a legitimate doctor-patient relationship. Some patients who went to the accused physicians are concerned they could lose their cards.

Writing a law to restrict how doctors recommend marijuana is tricky. Lawmakers in Illinois, New Jersey and other states have tried to avoid California's drop-in, instant exams by attempting to define in legislation a legitimate doctor-patient relationship. Laws commonly call for a "bona fide" relationship with a physical exam and review of medical records. New Jersey doctors must register in a publicly viewable database and take courses in addiction medicine and pain management.

3) Not enough customers

The Illinois Department of Public Health has approved about 4,000 applications for medical marijuana, including 26 for people under 18 years old. However, business owners argue that number just isn't high enough to sustain dispensaries; they say they need at least 20,000 to 30,000 customers in the next six months to a year to stay open.

From the Daily Herald:

The reason for the disappointing numbers stems from what the operators call unnecessarily tight restrictions on who can buy marijuana.

For example, chronic pain and sleep disorders are not considered valid reasons in Illinois to buy medical pot, but they are elsewhere. State politics also plays into it, as does some reluctance within the medical community to embrace the program.

For medical marijuana programs in some other states, chronic pain makes up a huge chunk of the conditions users report. In both Michigan and Colorado, around 93 percent of patients use medical marijuana for severe and chronic pain.

4) Fingerprinting is a pain

Illinois' program requires marijuana patients to be fingerprinted. Some advocates say that's a violation of patients' privacy and civil rights, as no one else is required to be fingerprinted for any other types of medication.

And for those who can't leave the house or have difficulties travelling, getting fingerprinted can be a huge burden.

Julie Falco has painful, incurable multiple sclerosis. Back when she could still walk, she was well known in the State Capitol as a tireless proponent of medical marijuana. But now with the program at the tipping point, she says she won't be part of it.

"Still feel like a criminal because I'm getting fingerprinted. Even though I use a wheelchair. I'm on a walker. I can barely move during the day," Falco said.

5) It's expensive

If you're looking for a medical marijuana prescription in Illinois, you'll need to have some money saved.

Patients in Illinois must pay a $100 application fee. Other charges, including a photo, fingerprinting fees and a physician consultation could tack on another $150 to the application process. Once they get their cards, they must pay an annual fee of $100 to keep them.