Illinois’ Absurd Fight to Block Medical Marijuana

650 Illinois residents are approved to buy medical cannabis in the state. With no available marijuana and little government support, they may be waiting indefinitely.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Illinois’ former Gov. Pat Quinn legalized medical cannabis in the Prairie State on Aug. 1, 2013. One year, five months, and 12 days later, not a single patient has received it.

The line of those waiting to take advantage of the program is long: 650 people and growing. Suffering from one of 34 “debilitating medical conditions,” ranging from glaucoma to HIV, they’ve earned the right to purchase cannabis for medical use. The problem? There is none.

While the process has been an arduous one from the start, many were optimistic that Quinn, who departed from office for good Monday, would fix this problem. He left without mentioning it. Now, with a new governor who says he would have vetoed the bill, the program seems destined for collapse.

Can Illinois save its medical marijuana patients?

***While the actual growing of marijuana is vital to a medical cannabis operation, it’s not the hard part. Getting approval to take it is the real hurdle.

Doctors for the 650 people that have been approved thus far successfully convinced the state of Illinois that, for these patients, cannabis is medicine. In a nation that still considers marijuana a drug with zero medical value, that’s no easy task. It took mounds of paperwork, years of doctor’s appointments, and decades of suffering to prove that this drug can change their lives. Now that they finally have, there’s nowhere to get it.

For Marla Levi, a 51-year-old with multiple sclerosis so severe she’s in constant pain, the delay is devastating. “We are just flabbergasted at this point,” Levi tells me on the phone. “I have my approval letter ready. I’ve been fingerprinted. I’ve paid the fee, and it does me absolutely no good. It’s useless.”

It was 1996, while a high-powered VP of sales at an insurance agency, when Levi first noticed symptoms of her illness. Numbness in her feet came first (“My shoes were too tight when doing aerobics”), followed by a similar feeling in her calves. But it was a trip to London when things got worse. “I kept falling,” she says. “My knees would just buckle.” Months later, after doctors determined it was multiple sclerosis, “everything went south.”

A brutal, long-lasting disease, those with MS suffer severe nerve damage at the behest of their own immune system, which attacks the fatty acid—myelin—that lines the nerves. In a matter of months, Levi says using her legs became difficult—prompting a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. She had to quit work and hire around the clock help.

Twenty years later, her suffering is excruciating. At night, severe muscle pain steals her sleep. In the daytime, her left hand makes a fist that she cannot unclench. With cannabis, the pain nearly disappears. Her hand relaxes. Her shoulders and back loosen. “I’m considering moving to another state,” she says. “I think we all are.”

Unlike prior states with medical marijuana issues, it’s neither the list of covered conditions, nor a lack of physicians that has caused the impasse. It is, quite simply, the lack of cannabis. Exactly zero dispensaries have made it through the bureaucratic hurdles needed to win approval for growing. Zero. Not only is there no medical cannabis available for purchase now, but there’s none growing.The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act (HB1), a 49-page document, outlines the qualifications for becoming a registered medical marijuana patient in the state. In another section of the document, a patient’s allowable “adequate supply,” is defined as “2.5 ounces of usable cannabis… derived solely from an intrastate source.”

The last day for the dispensaries and cultivation experts to apply for one of the 21 licenses the state plans to issue was Sept. 22, 2014. That means the Illinois Department of Agriculture has had more than three months to grade the 159 applications they received.

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Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says it’s unclear why no dispensaries have won approval to grow. “There isn’t really a solid definitive answer,” he says.

Two theories about why the licenses remain outstanding abound. The first: The applications have already been scored and are merely sitting on a desk waiting to be awarded. The second: that the Illinois’ DOA is overwhelmed sorting through the applications to grow a plant that is, ultimately, foreign. “If licenses are just waiting to be issued, there could be a lot of political issues there,” Linn says. “If they haven’t been processed that would be a more realistic answer.”

Regardless of the answer, Linn says the shifting timeline of the program has patients incensed. When the initial application for licenses began in September, the state set the tentative deadline for awarding them as the end of the fiscal year. When 2014 came and went, many viewed the impending departure of Gov. Quinn as the perfect time to release the licenses. But when Quinn left Monday without so much as a mention of the outstanding licenses, citizens began to worry.

“People are definitely frustrated, the patients are really upset that they are waiting,” says Linn. On top of patients, business owners are now paying for facilities that they are unable to use. “They’re losing money every day,” says Linn.

Residents worry the situation will grow bleaker now with Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was quoted in September saying he would have vetoed HB1. This week, Illinois Rep. Lou Lang spoke out against Quinn’s decision, and expressed concern about the future. “This single failure may doom the medical cannabis program,” Lang said. “[It] said to all of those folks that made applications to be cultivators or dispensary owners that we took your $5 million but we’ll get to you when we feel like it.”

Lang characterizes Quinn’s move (or lack thereof) as a betrayal to the citizens. “The state of Illinois has a responsibility to fulfill its obligations under the law,” he said Tuesday. “We did not do that.”

For Levi and other patients like her, it’s the stories of the littlest among them—children with epileptic seizures—that leaves her speechless. “Babies [and] little kids that have 100 seizures a day, they take cannabis and it stops,” she says. “How can any politician say no to that? It’s sick.”

Gov. Rauner did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment.