CHICAGO (AP) - Illinois' experiment with medical marijuana has earned a boost thanks to Gov. Bruce Rauner's approval of legislation extending the state pilot program for 2 1/2 years and including two more medical conditions.
On Friday, medical marijuana advocates and experts called it a turning point that gives patients guaranteed access to the drug and provides confidence to those selling and cultivating it in the state. Rauner signed the measure Thursday night.
"It's a very good thing for us," said Charles Bachtell, the founder and CEO of Cresco Labs, which holds cultivation permits in Illinois. "It's somewhat of an endorsement of the state saying, 'You're doing the right thing. We like what we're seeing from the pilot program and let's make some reasonable modifications.'"
The measure extends the pilot program until July 2020 and includes those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illnesses, defined as those who have less than six months to live, to participate in the program. Illinois Department of Public Health officials said Friday the agency must draft emergency rules, develop forms and adjust online registration and registry cards before those with PTSD and terminal illnesses can apply for the medical marijuana program. IDPH will post information on its website when applications can be accepted, spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.
The new law also streamlines how doctors approve patients and gives the governor the ability to reappoint members of the Illinois Medical Cannabis Advisory Board.
State Rep. Lou Lang, the Skokie Democrat who has sponsored medical marijuana proposals, said the extension and technical changes are crucial to gauging the program's success.
Lawmakers legalized a four-year pilot in 2013, but the first sales weren't until November 2015. Without Rauner signing the legislation, the program would have expired at the end of 2017. Lang said the remaining time "simply wasn't long enough."
Most significantly, the new law provides patients with reassurances that the drug will be available in Illinois, said Bob Morgan, who was the Illinois program's first director and now is president of the Illinois Cannabis Bar Association.
"They won't have to revert to purchasing cannabis illegally or consider moving to another state that has a medical cannabis program," Morgan said.
The new law also gives Illinois medical marijuana businesses more time to grow, he said.
"That's got to be a relief to them, that they can just continue to operate a successful business and work toward servicing the community," Morgan said.
Illinois' medical marijuana pilot program got its start under former Gov. Pat Quinn and continued under Rauner, who for more than a year resisted expanding the program beyond the original 39 conditions and diseases listed in the law.
The industry's future in Illinois also depends on a handful of lawsuits challenging the Illinois Medical Cannabis Advisory Board's denial of marijuana use for certain conditions. Lawsuits are pending that challenge the state's decision to not include osteoarthritis, autism, chronic post-operative pain, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, polycystic kidney disease and intractable pain.
Illinois law allows people to petition the state to add health conditions to the eligible list, but Rauner's administration had rejected all new conditions despite the advice of an expert panel that reviewed available medical evidence.