A year and a half after Illinois lawmakers voted to legalize medical marijuana, Marla Levi is still waiting.
Levi has multiple sclerosis, uses a wheelchair and said she ingests marijuana to help her manage the symptoms. If she wants to continue, she'll have to get it on the street, because medical marijuana in Illinois isn't expected to be available for several more months.
A series of snafus has delayed the rollout of the program. Now lawsuits challenging the licensing process are further complicating efforts, and a judge has granted a court order delaying the issuance of one cultivation license until the mess can be straightened out.
Ultimately, while the delay could cost businesses money, advocates who have pushed for medical pot legalization in Illinois say it's the patients who are paying the steeper price. People with cancer, AIDS or other serious or life-threatening illnesses — even those who, like Levi, have already been approved to use the drug — must continue to wait to get the medication, which many say relieves the side effects of their conditions.
Levi, 51, keeps the letter from the state approving her as medical marijuana patient in a frame on her kitchen wall. The Buffalo Grove resident said she prepares food with marijuana rather than smoking it. She said the pot relaxes her extremely tight muscles better than prescription drugs ever have.
"We're close but no cigar," she said of the holdups in getting the drug to market. "It's just awful."
The latest delays involve lawsuits claiming that the state did not follow its own law and rules in judging applications and awarding licenses to grow marijuana. Two businesses that failed to get licenses, PM Rx LLC and White Oak Growers LLC, separately charge that the state Department of Agriculture unfairly awarded two licenses to Cresco Labs LLC in Kankakee and Joliet.
In its most provocative charge, PM Rx claimed that it had a higher score than Cresco until someone representing Cresco met with Quinn. The complaint does not provide any details or evidence for its accusations, and Quinn has denied the meeting ever happened. A Cresco representative has said the company stands by its application and exceeded all state requirements.
Of broader consequence may be a claim that Cresco agreed to pay a portion of its revenues to the city of Kankakee, similar to agreements by some applicants in other municipalities. PM Rx claims this violates the state law's requirement that applications identify every person or entity having any financial interest in the operation.
In response, a judge this month issued a temporary order to prevent the state from giving the Kankakee license to Cresco and ordered the state to produce all the applications for cultivation centers in that district.
The Illinois attorney general is fighting the order, arguing that under the law, all applications are secret, and it's a crime to release them. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday.
The secrecy of the applications has been at the heart of the controversy over the licenses.
When he drafted the law, state Rep. Lou Lang said, he made the applications secret, with evaluators using copies that had all identifying information blacked out, to eliminate bias. Now that the scoring is largely completed, he said, he'd support and expects making the evaluations public, either through regulation or court order or by changing the law.
The rollout of the program is taking so long that Lang, a Democrat from Skokie, is concerned that by the time marijuana becomes available, as expected by this summer, there will only be 2 1/2 years remaining on the pilot program. He introduced a bill to extend the program to four years after the dispensaries receive final approval, while lawmakers also consider other bills to decriminalize or legalize recreational marijuana.
Lang expected lawsuits from the those who didn't get licenses but said: "The litigation stretches out the process, and in the end hurts patients, so I hope it resolves quickly."
The program faces another problem: a lack of patients. Only about 1,600 have been approved to use medical pot so far, compared to tens of thousands initially projected.
Patients with any of about three dozen specified medical conditions need their doctors' recommendation to get medical marijuana, but advocates say many hospitals and health systems are prohibiting or discouraging doctors from doing so.
Health administrators are worried because, to qualify for federal funding such as Medicare, health care providers must pledge that they will follow federal law, under which marijuana remains illegal.
Several Illinois hospital systems contacted for this story, including Northwestern Medicine in Chicago and Southern Illinois Healthcare, decline to reveal their policy. Northwestern referred comment to the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council, which deferred to the Illinois Hospital Association.
The hospital association does not track hospitals' policies on the issue and does not make recommendations on the issue, but simply noted online that the state law authorizes physicians to certify that patients have conditions that could benefit from cannabis.
The medical marijuana program faces two other objections. At least two dispensaries have had their proposed sites rejected by local officials, while other winners are seeking new investors. Both changes, competitors say, violate requirements that each application show proof it met zoning requirements and that all investors undergo criminal background checks.
Applicants were required to show that they complied with local zoning requirements, but officials say they are being given more time to find a substitute site if necessary, and that any additional investors will have to undergo the same background checks as initial backers.
"If an organization does not acquire zoning approval, they may choose a different location within the district within a reasonable time," according to a statement from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. "The applicant will need approval from (the state) on the new location."
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