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How Illinois Is Prioritizing Medical Cannabis

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How Illinois Is Prioritizing Medical Cannabis

Medical patients will get priority when Illinois opens for recreational sales Jan. 1, 2020.

On Jan. 1, 2020, commercial recreational cannabis sales will begin in Illinois. If examples from past states are any indication, there will be absurdly long lines, there will be many cases of sticker shock and, at some time months or years into the future but seemingly inevitably, there will be no more medical marijuana.

The loss of medical marijuana has been the trend, but this is one that Illinois is poised to break, because in Illinois, medical-cannabis patients will be the first in line to get legal weed — and if supplies run out, they will be the last.

Medical cannabis is dead, one line of conventional wisdom in certain drug-policy reform circles goes, a victim of its own success.

Both its killer and its elegy is full-blown adult legalization, the summit for which medical marijuana — and the requirement that anyone patronizing a dispensary first patronize a doctor’s office — served as base camp.

This can’t be said to currently apply in states like Florida where medical cannabis is still the only vector for obtaining legal weed, but it does appear to be the future. The prime example fulfilling this narrative is California, the first state to experiment with relaxed cannabis laws: Medical cannabis patients, many of whom rely on recently re-legalized donations of free weed, must buy $3,000 worth of cannabis in order for the cost of a state-issued medical card to be worthwhile. The fading relevance of medical cannabis in California followed a severe contraction in Washington, also triggered by legalization, when more than 1,500 medical-cannabis dispensaries were replaced by 222 recreational stores — regulated by the state liquor control board, not the public health department.

At least part of this is business. Most dispensaries are recreational. A pivot to cannabis as a “wellness product” rather than a “medicine” requiring a doctor’s recommendation means the potential pool of customers is vastly expanded; it also means that patients aren’t prioritized. Even special product offerings, such as stronger edibles, don’t seem enough to entice a recreational customer to go through the hoops of qualifying as a medical patient.

What might work is the choice between no cannabis and some cannabis — and if being in the latter camp hinged on whether or not you were a patient.

Unlike most other legal states swimming in a vast oversupply of cannabis — some of which is going unsold, some more of which is sold on the underground market — Illinois expects a severe cannabis shortage, with growing capacity able to fulfill less than 25% of demand. (Early supply shortages have preceded supply gluts and crashing prices, a sequence Illinois might wish to avoid.)

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who invested tens of millions of dollars of his (hereditary) personal fortune in his successful gubernatorial campaign — of which legalization was a key promise — has said that legalization will “protect” medical cannabis patients, as Illinois Public Media recently reported. This means patients will get “priority” at dispensaries even when dispensaries can start accepting all adults 21 and over, a promise repeated by state lawmakers.

Current Illinois state law, however, allows retailers to accept cannabis from licensed cultivators and then decide whether they’d like to sell that cannabis to medical or recreational consumers. But state law also requires any “dual-use” cannabis retailer to monitor its monthly inventory and to keep enough medical cannabis on the shelf to satisfy the demand seen in the months before legalization. Anyone not doing this runs the risk of penalty, including having their licensed revoked, a Pritzker spokesperson told the Chicago Sun Times.

So far, 18 of the state’s 21 existing cultivation centers have been issued licenses to grow recreational cannabis. They, too, have been instructed to grow enough cannabis to meet the demand anticipated at Illinois’s 37 dispensaries.

Whether this works — whether patients’ needs will be prioritized, and whether Illinois is serious about punishing operators who don’t — remains to be seen. But even the vocal attention medical marijuana patients are receiving in Illinois is something they can’t count on elsewhere and Illinois stance appears an improvement over the recognition, from regulating bureaucrats if no one else, that medical cannabis was not an end unto itself.

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