Pubdate: Tue, 03 Sep 2013
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Ellen Jean Hirst
Page: 1


Drug Is Illegal in Feds' Eyes, So Crops Can't Be FDA-Inspected;
Illinois Has Yet to Unveil Rules

His family and friends were doubtful when Skyler Ellis, a young man
from Elgin, left for California at the beginning of summer to attend
cannabis college.

The 23-year-old with a baby boy quit his factory job - paying $13 an
hour with insurance - and headed straight to Oaksterdam University in
Oakland, which has been teaching people how to grow marijuana since
2007. He even slept in his car when classes first started, before he
found a place to stay.

The day after he landed back in Illinois, certificate in hand, Gov.
Pat Quinn signed Illinois' medical marijuana bill into law.

"I realized, man, this is happening. ... I might as well get in it
right now," Ellis said. "I really do feel like I have a big leg up."

While Ellis may be ready to hop on board Illinois' green rush, the
state Department of Agriculture has barely left the station. The
state's regulations for the cultivation of the plant have not yet been
written, a task the department will take on in the coming months. For
guidance it will likely look to other states that have already
cultivated a green market.

Regulating a drug that is illegal in federal eyes may complicate
matters. Just last week the Department of Justice released a
memo-saying it would not go after people who work in the industry in
states that have legalized the drug. Still, its illegal classification
- - marijuana is a schedule 1 drug along with heroin and LSD - means the
Food and Drug Administration cannot regulate it.

This creates an inherent risk for consumers, some health experts say,
who won't know if the medical marijuana they get is safe. But others
say the medicinal plant doesn't need that degree of oversight to
ensure a safe, predictable and quality medicine.

The abundance of unknowns in Illinois' pot future hasn't stopped
potential growers like Ellis from joining in. Zeta Ceti, chief
executive of Green Rush Consulting, said he's been swamped with calls
from hundreds of prospective entrepreneurs who want to know how they
might apply and be selected to join the medical marijuana industry in
Illinois. The state will limit cultivation centers to 22, and 60

"The interest (in Illinois) is just unbelievable," Ceti said. "This is
what happens in every single state, just because it hasn't been there

How it's grown

Ceti said growers don't need the FDA to regulate cultivation because
marijuana has been proven safe over years and years of use. But that
doesn't mean raising medical marijuana is easy, he said.

First, the cultivation site has to be big, Ceti said, at least 40,000
square feet, with an ideal space as large as 150,000 square feet.
States that have small cultivation centers are unable to accommodate
all of their patients, Ceti said.

"When these cultivation centers open up, you don't want them to tap
out," Ceti said.

Most states with regulations grow the plant indoors because of
security concerns, but it also allows them to fiercely regulate
temperatures. Prone to mold and mildew, the finicky plant needs
constant humidity levels less than 50 percent and temperatures between
76 and 80 degrees. The plant also needs certain levels of carbon
dioxide, specific nutrients and controlled pH levels.

"It takes a lot more care than tomatoes," Ceti said.

Growing marijuana also carries a legal risk - handling it is a still a
federal crime.

"When you go into this business you have to know that you're going to
wake up every day and commit a federal crime," said Betty Aldworth,
deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

'It's a crapshoot'

Without the FDA's involvement, patients who are prescribed medical
marijuana may not know what they are getting, said Dr. Eric Voth, a
Topeka, Kan., internist and pain specialist and chairman of the
Institute on Global Drug Policy.

"You've got absolutely nothing looking at purity," Voth said. "It's a
crapshoot that way."

Even if the state comes up with strict regulations for things like THC
levels - the psychoactive chemical in marijuana - Voth questions
whether they would be consistently tested.

"You have this whole cascade of what-ifs," Voth said. "Say you require
5 percent (THC) ... who's going to monitor it?"

Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy
Project, said the FDA would be in a better position to regulate the
chemical compounds within the plant. Something like aspirin would be
subject to regulation, he said, but willow bark - what it's derived
from - would not. He said medical marijuana is closer to the latter.

"If you start pulling chemicals out of the plants, that is something
that the FDA could regulate," Riffle said. "But the whole plant is the
most effective treatment for most diseases."

Ceti said THC levels can vary with shifts in the environment,
highlighting the importance of a controlled climate. People with
backgrounds in agriculture or who have training growing medical
marijuana - like Ellis - would be the best suited to work in the
industry, he said.

How it's regulated

Jeff Squibb, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, said
the department will likely look to other states for guidance on how to
regulate the plant. Nineteen others and the District of Columbia have
legalized medical marijuana. One state similar to Illinois in the
strictness of its law is Connecticut.

Unlike Illinois, Connecticut's Department of Consumer Protection,
which also licenses pharmacies and pharmacists, regulates the
cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana. Commissioner Bill
Rubenstein said his department treats medical marijuana like any other
controlled pharmaceutical substance.

"Because it is a plant, what we wanted ... was to make sure patients
knew what the active ingredient profile was," Rubenstein said.

To achieve a reliable, consistent product, Connecticut requires that
each batch of marijuana is homogenized and tested by an independent
lab. Brand names are assigned to the batches based on ranges of THC
levels and other active ingredient levels.

That way, Rubenstein said, doctors know what they're prescribing, and
patients know what they're consuming.

Even with strict regulations, Voth said doctors unfamiliar with
medical marijuana might not know the right amount to prescribe. He
also said that the correct dosage has not been clearly worked out for
most disorders. The law allows patients up to 2.5 ounces of pot every
14 days.

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the
Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the amount prescribed is of lesser
concern, because marijuana is impossible to overdose on like other
prescription drugs.

"The primary reason (for concern) would be many prescribed drugs in
the opiates in particular have very low thresholds for overdoses,"
Armentano said.

"Marijuana conveniently has a very low risk of toxicity and it has no
lethal overdose potential."

Armentano compared medical marijuana to steroids prescribed to people
with asthma. Generally, asthmatics administer the prescription drug by
inhaling it when they feel an attack coming on.

Some states slow

As acceptance of the merits of medical marijuana grows, some states
that were once frightened to act on medical marijuana laws that they
had passed are beginning to move forward.

States such as Delaware and New Jersey passed medical marijuana laws
several years ago, but they didn't take action when a 2011 memo from
U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole indicated that the Department
of Justice might prosecute people involved in the distribution of
medical marijuana, even if they were in compliance with state laws.

An updated Cole memo released last week reversed that sentiment, with
a few exceptions. The federal government would still act, for example,
if they had reason to suspect marijuana was being distributed to
minors or to gangs or cartel operations.

Although Delaware has issued identification cards to patients who
qualify for the drug, it hasn't licensed a dispensary since passing
its law two years ago.

In August though, Gov. Jack Markell announced that the state will
license one dispensary in 2014, after seeing that states like New
Jersey and Rhode Island didn't experience backlash from the federal

New Jersey similarly has just one licensed dispensary after 3 1/2
years into its medical marijuana program, and about 1,000 people
registered to participate. In comparison, California has hundreds of
thousands of people eligible to get medical marijuana, and Colorado
has more than 100,000.

Armentano said with so many examples to turn to, he's hopeful that
Illinois' process will be swift. Although based on other states'
experiences, the four-year pilot program signed into law Aug. 2 could
be halfway done before anyone has medical pot in hand.

"Hopefully now with a number of states that have dipped their toe in
this issue," Armentano said, "states like Illinois can find some
middle ground."
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