At the start of the Illinois' five-year medical marijuana use pilot project, I had great optimism for its success. Most experts were predicting that as many as 70,000 patients would be signed up by the end of five years. Now at the halfway mark, the state has only been able to sign up 4,000 qualified participants. Based on what I've seen so far, it would be impossible for me to not attribute these low sign-up numbers to the strict regulations set in place by the state at the beginning of the pilot program.
Restrictive Laws to Blame
The lawmakers of Illinois have set down some of the most restrictive medical cannabis laws in the country. They added in specific restrictions like state ID, patient background checks and participant fingerprint requirements, measures that will certainly be both time-consuming and costly to the patient, and may even prevent many patients from applying.
The program also requires there to be an established physician-patient relationship before a prescription can be written. I have read reports that at least two doctors are in hot water over this issue, and many other doctors are reluctant to prescribe cannabis to their patients. In fact, some doctors are reporting that their employers have requested that they not prescribe cannabis at all. I believe this puts an undue burden on the patients, who now have to search for a doctor willing to prescribe medical marijuana and spend months building a relationship with them before they can apply.
Overly Restrictive Medical Conditions
While these extra precautions are certainly hindering the effectiveness of the medical marijuana pilot program, I contend that the low number of medical conditions that actually qualify for the program has been the biggest roadblock. The latest report I read showed that the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has only approved just 35 different illnesses. This list includes ailments such as cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, this list is also missing dozens of important medical conditions that can be managed with medical cannabis, such as depression, bipolar, diabetes, and Crohn's disease.
Last year, the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board recommended the addition of 11 other diseases to the IDPH's list of qualified medical conditions. Unfortunately, the IDPH announced that it would not be making any changes to the list of qualified condition. This year, the board reduced their request to just eight additional ailments, such as chronic pain, PTSS (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), autism and osteoarthritis.
What We Already Know
A recent study by HelloMD supports the notion of expanding the list of qualified medical conditions. Out of the 17,000 patients surveyed, which may well be the largest survey of its type among medical marijuana users, the most common reason for using medical marijuana was for treating anxiety, pain, stress, insomnia, depression, migraines and arthritis. These results seem to fall in line with what the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board is recommending. Even more impressive is the fact the 84 percent of the study participants believe very strongly that the use of medical cannabis has helped to control their symptoms. In addition, 96 percent would recommend the use of medical marijuana to friends and family members.
More than 22,000 people signed a petition at Change.org in reference to medical cannabis, to be sent to Governor Rauner, with many of the signers leaving heartfelt messages behind. The hope is to entice the state to expand the list of medical marijuana conditions before the program slides into total disarray. Even celebrities like Jim McMahon and Melissa Etheridge have touted the benefits of medical marijuana.
Far Reaching Consequences
With the number of approved applicants falling well below the anticipated figures, my biggest fear is that the 23 licensed dispensaries will start to close up shop. HelloMD's Medical Marijuana Patient Survey Results showed that 61 percent of customers purchase their cannabis locally. Without these local dispensaries, patients will find it difficult to find the cannabis they need. These approved dispensary owners claim that they need to see an increase of about 20,000 to 30,000 qualified patients in order to become profitable. I think this increase is highly unlikely, given the state's refusal to expand the list of qualified medical conditions and the registration that the patients have to go through.
Other states like New Jersey and Minnesota are also seeing dismal approved patient numbers due to restrictive regulations. Unfortunately, it is the patients who are dealing with chronic pain, anxiety, stress and other medical conditions on a daily basis that are suffering the most. Some are filling the gap by using prescribed opioids to manage their symptoms, but these drugs can be addictive and dangerous, and come with a long list of negative side effects.
The Path Forward
I think that Illinois should look at California's medical marijuana use laws. The state has been at the forefront of this issue, approving the medical cannabis law in 1996 and being the first state to license a marijuana dispensary. California now has a long list of medical conditions that can be used to secure approval for medical marijuana use. The state also issues more than 17 different types of cannabis dispensary licenses to make both opening one and staying compliant with regulations easier.
I believe that Illinois could capitalize on the success of California by using it as a model for its medical marijuana law. Unfortunately, if Illinois continues down this broken path, it won't take long for the entire program to crumble. Governor Bruce Rauner has hinted that he may be interested in expanding the pilot program by two years. However, it seems to me that without immediate changes the program may not last that long, and it is the patients who will continue to suffer the most.