As Illinois prepares to fully legalize pot in the coming months, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Monday that he approved legislation last week making permanent the state’s medical marijuana program and adding a list of new qualifying conditions.
During a news conference in Springfield, Pritzker said the legislation “brings our medical cannabis program in line with my administration’s vision for equity and it makes adjustments for the lessons that we’ve learned since its inception.”
The measure, which took effect Friday, gives access to Illinoisans diagnosed with chronic pain, anorexia nervosa, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, osteoarthritis, anorexia nervosa, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Neuro-Behcet’s autoimmune disease, neuropathy, polycystic kidney disease and superior canal dehiscence syndrome. Additionally, nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants can now certify prospective patients for the program, as opposed to only doctors.
Pritzker signed another bill Monday that allows school nurses or administrators to give cannabis products to students who are registered medical patients and lets students medicate under the supervision of those officials. When the measure takes effect at the start of next year, students will also be permitted to use cannabis before or after school and during school-sponsored activities.
“As we continue to reform state government so that it better serves its families, we must do so in a way that advances dignity, empathy, opportunity and grace,” said Pritzker.
The protections for schoolchildren bolster a law approved last year that was named for 13-year-old Ashley Surin, who uses cannabis to treat epileptic seizures related to a leukemia diagnosis.
Ashley’s mother, Maureen Surin, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the legislation marks a “perfect move forward for pediatric patients using or wanting to use medical cannabis in Illinois schools.”
The Pritzker-backed recreational pot law, which legalizes the drug Jan. 1 for all adults over 21, also includes protections for medical patients, requiring dual use dispensaries to keep a stockpile of medical marijuana and prioritize sales to medical patients in the case of a supply shortage. A February study commissioned by lawmakers and conducted by the Colorado consulting firm Freedman & Koski warned that Illinois’ 20 licensed cultivations centers couldn’t meet the state’s demand for recreational pot.
Despite the new considerations, the number of medical patients in Illinois could take a hit when recreational sales come online. That’s been the trend in the 10 states that already allow recreational pot sales, some of which have lost more than half their medical patients in a matter of years, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press.
So what will keep patients in Illinois’ program?
Because medical cannabis sales are only subject to a 1% pharmaceutical tax, patients will be paying much less for pot than recreational users who will be hit with taxes between roughly 20% and 35%, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
Another benefit written into the recreational pot law will allow medical patients to grow up to five weed plants at home. Lawmakers initially wanted to allow all Illinoisans to cultivate their own crops, but pushback from opponents and concerns of homegrown grass getting diverted into the black market forced them to scale back the legislation.
The existing medical cannabis pilot program was signed into law in 2013 by former Gov. Pat Quinn and was set to expire next year. Sales of medical pot were slow when they started in 2015 under former Gov. Bruce Rauner, who initially rejected recommendations put forth by an advisory board to expand the list of qualifying conditions.
Rauner ultimately signed off on an expansion in 2016 that extended the program and added terminal illness and post-traumatic stress as qualifying conditions. He gave the program another boost last August when he approved legislation that created the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, which gives opioid patients the option to buy medical weed and did away with previous provisions that required applicants to submit to fingerprinting and criminal background checks.
“Opioid abuse disorder is disrupting and destroying families across our state and across the country,” Rauner said at the bill signing. “We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic, and today, I’m proud to sign a bill that helps us stop this epidemic.”
In the wake of those changes, a growing number of Illinois residents have registered as medical cannabis patients.
As of July 31, 80,035 patients had been approved for the medical pilot program since it started accepting applications in 2014. Another 2,165 patients were enrolled in the new opioid alternative program, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The number of people approved for the medical program has nearly doubled since the same time last year, when there were 42,203 patients.
Total retail sales of medical pot have brought in more than $386 million since dispensaries opened their doors, the IDPH said.
Those figures will likely pale in comparison to recreational sales numbers. The demand study commissioned by legislators estimated that annual recreational pot sales could eventually bring in between roughly $1.69 billion and $2.58 billion “if all cannabis consumers chose to procure cannabis from the commercial market and the price remained steady.”