Slow your roll Illinois.
The sale of legal cannabis for medicinal use is not realistically expected for sale until next year, despite the law inhaling its initial breath on January 1. All pot puns aside, here’s what you need to know about the bill.
On the first of the year, Coloradans formed lines outside more than 35 store fronts across the state to make history: be some of the first ever consumers of recreational, legal marijuana.
Thanks to a 55 percent majority of over 2 million voters, Colorado passed Amendment 64 in November of 2012, making it legal for residents over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of cannabis legally. So joyous was this occasion, close to 20 dispensaries in Denver ran out of the stuff. Washington state also passed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana that will rollout later this year. Right behind these two pioneers are 18 other states – plus the nation’s capital – that will regulate the sale of medicinal marijuana. Alongside Colorado on New Year’s Day, Illinois’ Medical Marijuana Pilot Program (MMPA) went into formal effect.
While signing The Compassionate Use of Medicinal Cannabis Act last August, Governor Pat Quinn quoted Nelson Mandela, “‘Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” I’m not sure the famous apartheid leader meant the “brave patients and veterans” living with extreme illness that “need and deserve pain relief” when he said that, but here we are.
The implementation of the law is by no means ready for full participation or sale yet. In fact, the latest news on the MMPA’s website this week is that the Illinois Department of Public Health’s drafted 48 pages of rules and regulations for the bill have been posted for public knowledge and opinion; the state will be taking comments and suggestions until Feb. 7. This step toward transparency is in line with Illinois’ proclaimed “emphasis on patients,” who can print out the law’s analysis and talk to their physician about prospective use. Agencies have until April to prepare concrete literature on patient ID cards and regulation/distribution of the product.
Out of the legalized states, Illinois has the tightest grip on the what is and is definitely not considered to be “ill” enough for medicinal marijuana use. In Colorado, 94 percent of patients cited chronic pain as reason for use. California’s Prop. 215 lists “cancer, anorexia, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” Doctors have written green prescriptions for hundreds of ailments, some as common as insomnia, migraines or PMS. Illinois’ list of marijuana-approved illnesses is no more than 40 conditions, the “lowest grade” of which are arguably glaucoma and Crohn’s disease. The law prohibits anyone convicted of a drug felony from obtaining a medical cannabis card, although there is a caveat for convictions involving marijuana for medical reasons.
It is already clear, the Illinois bill is on par with no other state legislature on the matter. Under the draft, it will cost patients $150 a year to apply for a medical card, on top of the cost of electronic fingerprinting for the required, state issued background check ($30-$50). In Oregon this annual cost is $200; in Arizona the patient fee is $150, some states are lower.
These fees and the cost of cannabis will be out of pocket, as the drug is not covered by insurance, most likely because it would be far too risky considering pot is still illegal under federal law. The Affordable Care Act however, does not discriminate against “alternative medicines,” though most businesses do not recognize weed as such.
Capped at 60 dispensaries statewide, Illinois facilities will be strictly regulated by the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. As well as the Department of Agriculture, who will test the medicine regularly for pesticides and potency; buds will be labeled in detail and sold in tamper-proof containers.
Bradley Vallerius, author of “Illinois Medical Marijuana Law: A Practical Guide for Everyone,” said the “dispensaries should have competitive prices.” Legalization could and most likely will drive the cost of marijuana down, a large part of which has to do with how much cheaper it is to not have to grow the plant in the shadows of secrecy. According to some numbers printed by Bloomberg Businessweek, the legal price of recreational Colorado marijuana is around $14/gram, which is about 70 percent of Illinois’ current “street” price. What’s more, Colorado Springs Business Journal reports the state’s legalization legislation is estimated to create $60 million for the state in combined savings and additional tax revenue; that is just south of the total cost to renovate the MAC and PE buildings.
Marijuana related incarceration costs taxpayers around $1 billion annually – this statistic comes from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. In fact, about 12.4 percent of inmates in federal prisons serving time for drug related crimes are for marijuana related offences. After a little math, it works out to be about 1 in every 8 U.S. drug offenders have been locked up for pot.
President Obama recently stressed the importance of a society where several people are breaking the law and only a select few get punished in an interview with the New Yorker: “We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”
In the same interview, the president brings up a really interesting point; though marijuana is a potentially life changing medicine, could its widespread acceptance also be a backdoor to legalizing other, harder drugs in the future? He asks about where the proverbial line might be crossed, “If marijuana is fully legalized at some point folks say, ‘well, we can come up with a negotiated doses of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka,’ are we open to that? If someone says, ‘We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth,’ are we O.K. with that?”
Lawmakers are not dodging the idea that the drug is harmless. Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island (where medicinal marijuana has been legal since 2006) surprisingly called Colorado and Washington “canaries in a coal mine” at a “Smart approaches to marijuana” conference. The democrat predicts some pretty practical residual effects including higher drop-out rates, an increase in school absences and a general decrease in public health. To be fair though, likening the use of recreational marijuana specifically to young people – just like everything taught about the herb in DARE class – is not a clear enough picture of the truth.
More than a dozen states could legalize medical pot in the coming year. “I don’t mind changing the law to make it a misdemeanor for small quantities; I’m not crazy about legalizing [it],” said a supervisor on an Iowa county board meeting with state legislators earlier this month.
Most states on the fence are paying close attention to the examples already in motion. Communications director of Marijuana Policy Project, Mason Tyvert told the Huffington Post, “All too often we see legislators decrying systems of regulated marijuana cultivation and sales without ever having seen such a system work. Elected officials who are making decisions about marijuana laws better have an understanding of marijuana and how those laws work.”
Illinois is definitely keeping the reins tight, with one eye on the west to avoid as many unintentional consequences as possible. The rollout is proving an extremely slow process, but the wheels are turning just fine.
As for Illinois becoming the next Colorado anytime soon, think it’s safe to stub that one out.