Rauner administration again rejects new medical marijuana conditions

CHICAGO (FOX 32 / AP) - For the second time in five months, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signaled his distaste for broadening the state's new medical marijuana program, declining to add chronic pain and seven other health conditions to the list of diseases that can be treated with the drug.

“I didn't know whether to be angry or depressed or what it is,” said Lon Hodge, who’s a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD.

Hodge has a service dog to help him deal with his severe arthritis pain and PTSD.

“Part and parcel of that is in the evenings, night terrors, nightmares, not being able to go to sleep, panic attacks during the day. Been in the emergency room three times in the last five months,” Hodge said.

The Department of Public Health announced the decision Friday, spurning recommendations of an expert advisory board largely appointed by the governor's predecessor, Democrat Pat Quinn. The rejection has left the fledgling medical marijuana industry in a perilous position.

“I don't know, I don't know what it means for the industry exactly, I do know that it's not good,” said Ross Morreale, chairman of the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois. Today basically the administration slammed the door in tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of patients faces saying no, no cannabis for you. Continue to take opiates.”

The expert panel reviewed medical evidence and listened to patient testimony before recommending the eight conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects many military veterans. Other conditions recommended but rejected Friday were autism, irritable bowel syndrome, osteoarthritis and four pain syndromes.

New conditions would have meant adding more customers to a faltering industry: Regulated medical marijuana sales began Nov. 9 in Illinois, but just 4,000 patients have state approval to buy the drug at licensed dispensaries.

Supporters hoped that after nearly three months of regulated sales, Rauner would have looked more kindly at the program. Industry groups and patient advocates had used a social media campaign to urge people to telephone the governor's office in support of the eight conditions, and some delivered thousands of signatures to Springfield this week and held a rally.

In September, the governor vetoed legislation that would have added PTSD and his administration rejected 11 medical conditions recommended by the panel. At the time, he said in a veto message that it would be "premature to expand the pilot program - before any patient has been served and before we have had the chance to evaluate it."

Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold echoed that Friday in an email, saying the program was still in an early stage: "At this time, it is premature to expand the pilot program before there is the ability to evaluate it under the current statutory requirements."

Dr. Nirav Shah, the state's public health chief and a Rauner appointee, thanked the medical cannabis advisory board for its work.

"Twice in a row, this is getting to be insulting, especially for our patients who are suffering," said board chair Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple, who said she would meet with Shah next week to get his feedback. "The expertise of the board, the patient testimonies and evidence presented, as well as other states' precedents, made our recommendations reasonable."

Gold-standard research on medical marijuana's efficacy has been blocked by federal barriers, though evidence that the drug is effective for chronic pain is fairly strong.

Hodge points out that veterans suffering from PTSD commit suicide at a rate of more than 22 a day. He says the governor’s decision is a slap in the face to veterans like him.

“I think he's now become part and parcel of the suicide problem for veterans in Illinois,” Hodge said.

Without access to medical marijuana, Hodge says he and his wife might not be able to stay in Illinois.

“We're giving serious consideration to moving to Colorado or to a state that’s a little more enlightened about this,” Hodge added.

Rauner's stance is being challenged in court. Five Illinois residents filed lawsuits seeking to expand the program to cover health conditions rejected in September.

Lisa Arquilla's lawsuit seeks to add polycystic kidney disease. Three others filed lawsuits as anonymous "John Does," looking to use marijuana for chronic post-operative pain, irritable bowel syndrome and migraines.

Military veteran Daniel Paul Jabbs, 34, has PTSD following service in Iraq. His lawsuit seeks to get his condition added to the list.

"I'm flabbergasted," Jabbs said Friday. "I think (Rauner) is intentionally stalling the program. ... He's putting politics before people."

The Illinois medical marijuana law, enacted before Rauner's election, authorizes a four-year pilot program that expires at the end of 2017.

The law lists 39 conditions and diseases that can qualify a patient to use medical marijuana with a doctor's signature, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C and multiple sclerosis.

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