Medical Marijuana Has Been Legal In Illinois For A Year, But A Single Patient Has Yet To Benefit

Medical Weed Has Been Legal In Illinois For A Year, But No One's Using It Yet

Medical marijuana has been legal in Illinois for more than 365 days, but the number of patients that have actually been able to get relief from the drug remains a big fat zero.

While 600 local patients have already been approved for a medical marijuana card, there's no place to actually buy the stuff. And after the state recently blew its self-imposed deadline to award business licenses to medical marijuana growers and dispensaries by the end of 2014, not a single business can even plant pot seeds.

“Illinois is the worst at anything having to do [with] medicine -- or alternative [treatment],” Claire Mooney, a 39-year-old acupuncturist in Chicago, told The Huffington Post. Mooney applied in November for a medical marijuana card, hoping to ease muscle rigidity, pain and other symptoms caused by her multiple sclerosis.

Though she's frustrated by the state's timing, she said she's also not surprised by it. “It goes on the timeline I thought it would be on, given the bureaucracy of Illinois.”

Despite the growing frustration among would-be medical marijuana patients like Mooney, it might not be time to lose heart entirely -- so says Ali Nagib, the assistant director for the Illinois arm of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Other than the fact that for many patients, any delay is too long, it’s not an unexpected delay for people who have been following it,” Nagib said. “If you go back and listen to floor debates in 2013, they were anticipating -- even at that time -- a year of rulemaking. In that sense, it’s not unexpected [the licensing has] taken that long."

But with a gubernatorial administration hand-off less than a week away, continued delays to the business licensing could see new variables emerge in an already complex landscape.

Outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn, considered a medical marijuana advocate, on Sunday told the Chicago Sun-Times of the state's licensing delay: "It is a complicated law and we're working on it as best we can. There's a lot of research to be done, and it has to be done right."

In less than a week, Quinn's term ends, and the licensing falls under the purview of Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, who criticized the law in the past.

“We don’t expect any major changes to the rules under [Rauner]," Nagib noted. "We simply don’t know how he’s going to implement this law. There are a lot of ways he could obstruct it if he chooses, and there are a lot of ways he could expedite it, too.”

Neither Quinn nor Rauner's office immediately replied when reached for comment.

Regardless of which administration issues the business licenses, Nagib said Illinois' medical marijuana patients are effectively "all dressed up, with no place to go."

Katelyn Harper, a 23-year-old Chicagoan who suffers from Crohn’s disease, told HuffPost she's not surprised by the long wait for medical marijuana access but remains hopeful that policy makers will avoid unnecessary delays.

“We are real people who have real lives, real jobs, friends, family," Harper said of her fellow patients who suffer from chronic illness. "[Medical marijuana] will not just benefit patients, it’ll benefit all of those people, too."

On the spectrum of states handling weed legislation, those like California and Colorado -- which legalized medical marijuana but have fewer regulations on the substance than Illinois does -- moved fastest from legalization to actual access, according to Nagib. At the other end of the spectrum is Massachusetts, still waiting on access to medical marijuana despite voters overwhelmingly approving it on a ballot measure more than two years ago.

"One criticism was that [Illinois' law] doesn’t allow for home cultivation," Nagib said. "If that provision had been in this bill, patients could have access already.”

Mooney said the dearth of licensed marijuana businesses in Illinois means patients are being denied not only access to the drug, but guidance as to which strains will best help certain conditions.

“For my multiple sclerosis, I’ve found [specific types of marijuana] very helpful,” Mooney said, noting that without licensed dispensaries, finding and using the best strain is a challenge. “I just have to scour the streets for my Maui Waui," she added, referring to the name of a strain of marijuana.

Nagib said most advocates and lawmakers are anticipating that patients will have medical marijuana access sometime between late spring and early fall of this year.

“I think this next week is going to be very telling," he said. "We’ll see if things move or not. If we get to 2015 and there’s still no patient access, I’d consider that to be a significant failure.”

Before You Go

In Israel, there is technically no legislation regulating marijuana for medical purposes but its Ministry of Health issues special licences allowing patients to use cannabis for certain medical reasons.

The country has been at the forefront of medical marijuana research since the 1960s, when Prof. Raphael Mechoulam isolated and studied THC, the psychoactive property in cannabis that leaves users feeling “stoned” but also helps relieve symptoms like food aversion and nausea.

Another Israeli professor, Ruth Gallily of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied the other main medicinal ingredient CBD, the property that can act as an anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety medicine.

Canadian licensed producer MedReLeaf has partnered with Tikun Olam, Israel’s primary supplier of medical cannabis, and a company on the cutting edge of marijuana advancement. It counts Mechoulam, “the grandfather of THC,” among its advisers.

“It’s the only country that I know that has been researching it for so long, and consistently,” said Maayan Weisberg, Director of Marketing and Business Development during an interview at MedReLeaf’s Markham, Ont., facility.

MedReLeaf has licensed some of Tikun Olam’s patented strains of marijuana that the company developed based on research collected from about 7,000 patients over the past seven years. Now, the company is involved in clinical research in major hospitals in Israel.

“We are the only company in the world that has this accumulated data about patients,” Weisberg said.

Tikun Olam, whose name means “healing the world” in Hebrew, has used patient feedback to create hybrid strains and play with genetic material. The company has experimented with different concentrations and ratios of cannabinoids to customize treatment for different types of patients.

“If it’s an elderly patient, you don’t instruct them the same way you do a child, you don’t instruct a Parkinson's patient the same as you do a cancer patient.”

Israeli researchers have studied the role of cannabis in treating a variety of ailments including anti-tumour properties for cancer patients, reducing weight loss among HIV patients, treating neuropsychological disorders and preventing tremors and shaking in multiple sclerosis sufferers.

The researchers last year found evidence that marijuana helps fight Parkinson’s and Crohn’s disease.
The Netherlands
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Though the Netherlands legalized medical marijuana two years after Canada, its main provider has enjoyed more freedom to experiment than Canada’s former sole provider CanniMed, which was limited to one strain under the government’s old program.

Unlike in Canada, medical marijuana has been available through pharmacies since 2003 through a government agency that also works with universities and research institutes.

There is one major supplier in Holland — Bedrocan, which has used feedback from patients, epidemiological studies and genetics to develop three strains of marijuana to cater to specific needs. Bedrocan also ships to other European countries that allow medical marijuana. It is working to develop clinical trials in Holland.

Bedrocan’s three strains are all covered by Holland’s largest health insurer, and a majority of physicians support its use.

Now, Bedrocan Canada, a sister company that is importing product from Holland, is one of 12 licensed producers under Canada’s new medical marijuana free market.

Though the Canadian ruling came first, the country is still far behind in developing medical marijuana in part due to how the drug was introduced. In Canada, a Supreme Court ruling forced the government’s hand and made it possible to access cannabis for medical reasons, whereas in the Netherlands, medical usage became available because of a sympathetic government .

“The program in Canada has been forced upon Health Canada by the Supreme Court whereas in the Netherlands it was developed out of a compassionate use for patients so they have a lot more liberal attitude towards cannabis and how it can benefit,” said Marc Wayne, head of Bedrocan Canada.

He blames a change in government funding policy that was ushered in by the Harper government eight years ago for cutting off experimentation with therapeutic uses of ganja.

“On the scientific level we’ve been kind of stunted in Canada.”

Under a program that started April 1, which allows commercial-sized grow operations, research funding will be left up to the private sector. In the Netherlands, Wayne explained, Bedrocan is funding much of the research.

“It definitely influences what strains are brought to market,” Wayne said, adding that patient research is behind the six strains Bedrocan now has available.
United States
Licensed Canadian producers are turning south of the border for marijuana growing know-how.

Tweed Inc. of Smiths Falls, Ont., did research in Colorado and turned to Maine to find master grower Ryan Douglas, who worked for a state-level medical marijuana facility. There, he oversaw 20 strains of grass. Similar advancements are taking place at the state level across the U.S.

Yes, even Canada’s War on Drugs-focused neighbour is making strides in the development of new marijuana strains. Although marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, more than 20 states now allow medical marijuana usage and two states allow recreational use. An additional 12 states now have legalizing recreational marijuana use on the agenda.

There is research being done in universities and institutes, and even the American Medical Association has endorsed the reclassification of marijuana from a Schedule I “most dangerous” drug to allow for further study.

Though officially opposed to its use as a medicine, the U.S. actually holds patents for cannabinoids.

Most recently, a proposal to study the effectiveness of cannabis in treating post-traumatic stress disorder got the green light from two U.S. federal agencies. Researchers are waiting on the Drug Enforcement Agency for the go-ahead for a clinical study at the federal level. The FDA has also approved clinical trials for the use of marijuana in treating epilepsy.

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