Pubdate: Wed, 18 Mar 2015
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2015 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Robert McCoppin


Delays, Legal Challenges Send Patients to Streets

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 a 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, PMRx 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, 
declined 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 nor make recommendations on it, 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 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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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom