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By Monique Garcia and John Keilman, Tribune reporters
5:35 pm, August 2, 2013
For Mike Graham, what started as an aggravation of an old football injury led to a number of failed spinal fusion surgeries before doctors decided to implant a pump to regularly release doses of morphine to try to ease his chronic pain.
Instead, the high-powered opiate combined with other prescription drugs left him feeling worse. The 50-year-old from Manteno had heard marijuana could provide relief, but he was hesitant to seek it out given the long line of police officers in his family. He eventually gave pot a try, saying he desperately wanted to spend more time with his children.
"In a matter of days, I started to feel better. I could keep food down," Graham said. "I thought, 'Oh, boy, what am I going to say at Thanksgiving?' But then they noticed that I could eat, so they knew something was up. ... I hadn't been there the three previous years because I wasn't able to get out of bed."
Graham was one of dozens of supporters on hand Thursday at the University of Chicago Center for Care and Discovery as Gov. Pat Quinn signed the state's medical marijuana bill into law, with Illinois joining 19 other states and the District of Columbia that have legalized cannabis for patient use.
The decision by Illinois leaders to take the plunge on medical marijuana after decades of resistance will unfold amid concerns that stretch from law enforcement officials who fear unused pot will be sold illegally to anti-drug educators who worry about the mixed message the law sends to kids to suburban zoning boards who'd rather pot shops not pop up on Main Street.
There will be plenty of time for such issues to be aired.
The law, which sets up a four-year trial program, doesn't take effect until Jan. 1. After that, state regulators will spend months coming up with rules spelling out who gets to open the 22 marijuana growing operations across Illinois, which businesses get the 60 licenses to sell the finished product and how patients will get medical marijuana cards from doctors. Then a panel of state lawmakers will decide whether the regulations are drawn tightly enough.
By the time that plays out, crops are grown and the pot stores open, it could be fall 2014 before those afflicted with one of 40 or so medical conditions can legally toke up to ease their pain.
But the long lead time is not stopping the legalized marijuana industry from descending on Chicago in three weeks for a "cannabusiness symposium."
There'll be how-to panels, tips on dealing with the government and, of course, networking opportunities — more big business than the peace-and-love image the less-successful push to legalize recreational use of marijuana calls to mind.
When those with a medical marijuana card are legally able to get the product, they'll be allowed up to 2.5 ounces every two weeks. That's about enough to fill two small plastic sandwich bags. They'll also be able to buy it baked into brownies, muffins, croutons and trail bars. And they can expect to pay taxes on their pot purchases. In Colorado, patients pay $80 and above for an ounce of medical marijuana, choosing from varieties with names like "Jack Flash," "Sour Diesel" and "LA Kush."
But unlike Colorado, which has come under fire for lax marijuana regulations even as the state gets ready to legalize recreational pot use next year, drafters of Illinois' law say it will be among the toughest in the nation.
Patients here can't grow their own pot and must have an existing relationship with a prescribing doctor. To qualify, patients must be diagnosed with a serious to chronic illness laid out in the law, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma or HIV. It's likely that patients would have to pay out of pocket for marijuana, as it is not typically covered by insurance companies.
The Illinois Department of Public Health will be in charge of issuing medical marijuana cards to patients and their caregivers, who could purchase and administer pot on behalf of those who are ill. Patients and caregivers would be fingerprinted, undergo background checks and must promise not to sell or give away marijuana. Workers at grow centers and dispensaries will undergo the same vetting.
The state will license 22 growers, one for each State Police district, as well as up to 60 dispensing centers to be spread across the state. Exactly where those growers and sellers could locate will be up to state regulators. Local communities could enforce strict zoning laws, but they could not prevent a grower or dispensary from setting up shop in town.
Growers and dispensaries will be charged a 7 percent "privilege tax," which will be used to enforce the medical marijuana law. Patients will be charged a 1 percent tax for purchasing pot, the same rate that applies to pharmaceuticals. Additionally, growers and dispensaries would be banned from donating to political campaigns.
Marijuana use would be banned in public, in vehicles, around minors and near school grounds. Property owners would have the ability to ban marijuana use on their grounds. Employers would maintain their rights to a drug-free work place, meaning someone with a valid medical marijuana card could be fired for using the drug if their employer prohibits it.
Advocates argue that Illinois' law is drafted tightly enough to prevent intervention from the federal government, which classifies all marijuana use as illegal. But the discrepancy between state and national law is already causing concerns for some military veterans, as federally run veterans hospitals say their doctors won't issue prescriptions for illegal drugs.
Legislators tried to get around that prohibition by providing a loophole in the law that would allow veterans to receive a prescription for pot from someone other than the primary care provider, but advocates say the federal government's stance prevents veterans from having honest conversations about the possible benefits of medical marijuana.
"It presents a pretty big stumbling block for vets," said Michael Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, a group based near Blacksburg, Va.
Meanwhile, opponents argue that the law will create a public safety hazard on the roads and promote drug use among teens.
The measure was opposed by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, which noted that the law does not ban medical marijuana patients from driving. The group had suggested that blood and urine testing be included in the legislation to allow police to determine whether cardholders were under the influence of marijuana while driving.
The bill's sponsors argue there are safeguards to prevent that, including designating on a driver's license whether a person uses medical marijuana. They contend that field sobriety tests, which can be admitted in court, are a better indicator of impairment than biological tests that can detect marijuana in a person's system for up to 30 days after it was ingested.
Beyond the issue of road safety, the police group said the law will allow patients to buy so much pot that they won't be able to use it all, meaning it will end up on the secondhand market.
"An 18-year-old high school student will be able to get marijuana," said John Kennedy, the police group's executive director. "With the amount of marijuana that has been approved, the excess joints will be accessible to other students."
Those who say they need marijuana to ease their suffering argue they won't be so quick to break the rules and risk the possibility that lawmakers won't extend the program after its initial expiration date in 2018.
"We are going to stay on top of this and self-police this program so that it can get rolled over in four years and everybody will realize that the world hasn't ended because a few sick people have safe, affordable access to medicine," said Graham, who attended the bill signing.
While the law would prevent grow centers and pot stores from locating near schools and day care centers or in residential areas, several suburbs already have taken steps to toughen their zoning ordinances to prevent those in the marijuana business from operating in high-profile areas.
Fox Lake, for example, limited marijuana facilities to manufacturing areas and listed such facilities as being for special use, meaning officials could require owners to install extra security or cameras to monitor suspicious activity.
Such opposition helped block a medical marijuana bill gaining traction at the Capitol until this spring, when it passed the House with one vote to spare. The law's sponsor contends the bill will make Illinois a better place to live in general, saying it's about providing compassion for those who need it most and preventing otherwise law-abiding citizens from being labeled as criminals.
"We have a responsibility as a state and as a legislature and as a government to simply take care of people when they need help," said Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. "Are we really going to be a state where we're going to allow a 75-year-old granny with colon cancer to have to search for a remedy for her pain and her nausea? I don't think that's the kind of state we want to be."