It was just three years ago that medical marijuana operations in Illinois feared they would be forced into bankruptcy if patient numbers did not increase beyond the measly few thousand the state allowed them to serve at that time. Now, all across the Land of Lincoln, medical marijuana operations are in an expansion phase, buying up more land, building additional facilities, hiring more people, all in preparation for the next thread in the economic web of the state’s cannabis industry. Because, while no one seems to have a grip on what it is or when it will happen, there is something big on the horizon for those cannabis companies doing business in that part of the Midwest. The situation there is perhaps the most prime example of the old adage “it’s not if, it’s when.”
“It’s a time where you don’t want to be behind,” Ross Morreale, co-founder of Illinois-based medical marijuana grower Ataraxia, told the Chicago Tribune. “We want to be as much ahead of it as we can, because you don’t know when it’s going to happen.”
When Illinois launched its four-year medical marijuana pilot program, it gave patients with 39 debilitating conditions access to the herb. But before these people could gain access to the golden gates of ganja, they first had to jump through a series of hoops and hope for approval.
In addition to getting a doctor to sign of on a medical marijuana recommendation, potential patients were also made to register with the state, submit to fingerprinting and a criminal background check before gaining the clearance needed to step inside a cannabis dispensary. Of course, these bureaucratic sandbagging tactics prevented many otherwise qualified patients from getting their hands on the medicine they needed. This meant that an AIDS patient, for example, with a felony on his or her record was not likely to be welcomed into the program.
But Illinois has made some minor improvements to program over the past couple of years, and more are hopefully coming soon. Somewhere around 42,000 patients with 41 conditions are now allowed to use medical marijuana. Around 14,000 of those were added just last year after the state added seizures disorders, PTSD and terminal illness to its list of qualified conditions.
Yet, at least for now, new medical marijuana applicants are still held to the state’s third degree, shakedown process before they are given the green light to peruse dispensary merchandise. However, there is a piece of legislation currently hanging out on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk that would bring an end to this nonsense. The bill is also designed to give patients that have been prescribed opioid painkillers the freedom to use medical marijuana as an alternative. If Rauner signs it, patient numbers are expected to soar. Pain is one of the leading qualified conditions among successful medical marijuana programs. This is just one of the reasons the cannabis industry is embarking on a construction and development phase. They want to be sure they can handle the surge.
But even if Rauner fails to expand the medical marijuana program in a way that takes patient numbers to new heights, cannabis companies are still investing in the future of marijuana in Illinois. This is due to the distinct possibility that the state will be one of the next to legalize the leaf for recreational use. The odds of this happening will become clearer in a few more months when the voters decide on the next governor in the November election.
Gov. Rauner opposes legalization for adult use. He has said time and again that he wants to wait and see how the situation unfolds in Colorado and other legal states before joining in. But his opponent, Democrat JB Pritzer says he plans to make marijuana legalization one of his first lines of business if elected. Pritzer has spent his campaign preaching the need for criminal justice reform and arguing that ending pot prohibition is a major step to buoy the cause. But he is also looking at legal weed as a business opportunity for Illinois. He understands the state, which is in debt to the tune of more than $8 billion, could use the tax revenue generated from a regulated cannabis marketplace to start digging itself out of the hole. Either way, lawmakers are hoping the further the recreational marijuana discussion in the next legislative session.
Exactly what types of changes are on the horizon are still unknown. But the industry is not letting what should be an important detail prevent it from making strides. “You want to be prepared,” Charlie Bachtell, CEO for the cannabis cultivation company Cresco told the Tribune. “You’ve got to be thinking 9 to 12 months out to make sure you’ve got capacity and product available.”
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