Pubdate: Thu, 11 Aug 2016
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2016 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Robert McCoppin


Illinois Medical Marijuana Use Has Increased Under Strict Regulation 
As Business Expands

In a warehouse in Joliet, hundreds of marijuana plants sway under 
high-intensity lights, taking in carbon dioxide-rich air, sucking up 
a constant feed of nutrients and bristling with buds.

Like Olympic athletes, the plants are rigorously trained and 
intensively pampered. Tiny predator bugs patrol the surface of the 
vegetation, hunting down any pests. Workers prune stems and leaves to 
put all the plants' energy into buds that produce the drug's euphoric 
and medicinal effects. The process churns out 200 pounds of 
high-grade pot every month.

The grow house at Cresco Labs is one of 19 cultivation centers in 
Illinois authorized by the state to produce medical cannabis. The 
facilities generally had been closed to the media until Wednesday, 
when reporters were allowed an unprecedented tour of the growing operation.

The look inside the state's secretive program comes as the struggling 
medical marijuana industry in Illinois is poised to grow. Last month, 
for the first time, the state added two new medical conditions - 
posttraumatic stress disorder and terminal illness - to the list of 
about 40 that qualify patients to buy the drug.

To address doctors' concerns that federal law still prohibits the 
distribution of marijuana, lawmakers also changed the statute to 
allow physicians to certify patients as having a qualifying medical 
condition without having to risk their licenses by vouching for the 
drug's medical benefits.

And in court, recent rulings are forcing state officials to 
reconsider adding other new conditions such as migraine headaches and 
chronic postoperative pain.

Though Illinois has one of the most restrictive programs in the 
nation with only 9,000 patients, they spent about $3 million on the 
drug last month.

Industry leaders are hopeful that expanded access will translate into 
more patients and a more sustainable program.

Charles Bachtell, founder and CEO of Cresco Labs, said a consultant 
estimates there will be more than 100,000 patients in Illinois, 
comparable to Colorado's medical cannabis population, by year three 
of the pilot program that began when the first licensed dispensaries 
opened in November.

"The program is seeing significant growth month to month," Bachtell 
said. "It's changed patients' lives. There's a great energy out there."

The legalization of marijuana - be it medical or recreational - has 
progressed steadily in recent years. Half the states in the union 
have authorized medical marijuana. Four allow sales to all adults and 
five more may have ballot initiatives this year.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner recently signed a law decriminalizing 
possession of small amounts of the drug.

But organizations such as the American Medical Association, American 
Psychiatric Association and American Academy of Pediatrics remain 
skeptical of medical marijuana, preferring that it be studied more 
and go through the same federal regulatory process as other legalized drugs.

So the tour, authorized by Jack Campbell, a former police officer who 
is the new director of the state medical cannabis program, was meant 
to take the lid off the pilot program in Illinois and let the public 
see how the drug is produced and monitored.

Campbell said there have been no major criminal incidents associated 
with the program, such as theft of medical marijuana or sales to 
people who aren't certified.

Because of the state's harsh winters and the law's security 
requirements, almost all the medical marijuana grown in Illinois 
comes from warehouses. Besides Joliet, Cresco owns growing facilities 
in Kankakee and Lincoln. The facility in Lincoln is a hybrid 
greenhouse with solid walls but a translucent roof.

The Joliet facility has 144 security cameras monitoring its 40,000 
square feet, with a feed to Illinois State Police. Every plant is 
tagged with an identification number to track it from seedling to sale.

All the plants begin in the so-called Mother Room, where about three 
dozen strains are chosen for their potency and growing ability. Stems 
are cut from the female plants to propagate clones.

As the small seedlings grow, they are moved into different rooms to 
provide optimal conditions for each stage of life. At first they are 
vegetative, growing like a bush, but eventually they begin to flower, 
growing thick clusters of buds. The stems and leaves have relatively 
few active components and are chopped up and thrown away.

The buds are cut off, dried for a couple of weeks, then processed 
into either dry flower used for smoking, or distilled into an oil, 
which can be vaporized in electronic pens or infused into chocolates, 
tinctures, lotions and solid wax.

The warehouse is filled with aromas from the plants that range from 
licorice to fresh-cut grass, and chocolate from the in-house bakery.

Thirty-five people work at the warehouse, tending the plants, 
processing them and baking them into deserts designed by acclaimed 
chef Mindy Segal.

A bank-style vault holds the finished products until they are 
released for sale under names for strains such as DJ Flo and Kandy 
Kush. Monitors keep the grow rooms about 75 degrees with 50 percent humidity.

The whole process takes about six months. Every two weeks, workers 
start the procedure all over.

Drivers deliver the products in locked boxes to any of 40 
state-authorized dispensaries. Each time, workers at the retail 
stores must call Cresco to get a special code to open each box.

Marijuana is generally divided into two main subspecies: sativa, 
which is considered more stimulating, and indica, said to be more 
relaxing and sedating. Hybrids combine qualities of both.

Potency is generally measured in terms of the percentage of THC, the 
component that gets users high, and CBD, which studies have shown may 
help reduce seizures and muscle spasticity. Cresco's flower products 
range in THC from 17 to 30 percent, and extracts run from 65 to 90 
percent. Edibles are dosed with specified amounts of THC, generally 
10 to 25 milligrams per serving.

By state law, independent labs must test samples of all marijuana 
sold in the state to verify potency and freedom from pesticides, 
molds or other contaminants.

The person directing cultivation for Cresco is 35year-old Jason 
Nelson, who has degrees in horticulture and agronomy. He has worked 
in the industry in Colorado and Washington.

Despite the risk of working in a federally illicit industry, Nelson 
said it's satisfying to hear from patients with serious illnesses 
who've been helped to relieve pain or symptoms.

"That's more than enough of an inspiration for me," he said. "It's 
very satisfying."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom