CHICAGO (AP) — Medical marijuana advocates are applauding Gov. Bruce Rauner's about-face on expanding Illinois' pilot program in length and qualifying conditions, saying it will allow time to show the program is worthwhile and will help more patients — including many veterans — who are suffering.
Democratic state Rep. Lou Lang announced late Friday that he, the Republican governor and the GOP's House leader agreed to extend Illinois' four-year pilot program until July 2020. It had been set to end by 2018, but supporters argued more time was needed because medical cannabis sales only started in November 2015 after years of trying to get the project off the ground.
The agreement, which must be and is likely to be approved by the Legislature, also adds post-traumatic stress syndrome and terminal illnesses with a diagnosis of six months or less to the list of 39 other qualifying diseases and conditions for which patients may use medical cannabis.
Rauner has previously rejected recommendations from Illinois' Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to add conditions, including PTSD. He also had opposed extending the program.
"I'm thrilled," said Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple, a family medicine physician in Glenview who serves as chairwoman of the advisory board. "We were all concerned that this whole thing was going to go away."
Anne Berg, a pharmacist and the agent in charge at Professional Dispensaries of Illinois, a suburban Chicago cannabis dispensary, said they hear from many people, particularly veterans suffering from PTSD, who are looking for an alternative to other drugs that either have been ineffective or caused unwanted side effects.
"I think it's really going to help," Berg said Saturday. "We're going to help some people for whom everything else has failed. People who are looking for another, safe option."
Rauner's office confirmed the details of the new agreement Friday, but declined to comment further.
As of the end of April, Illinois had 36 dispensaries and 6,200 patients who qualified to purchase and use medical cannabis, according to the program's director. State officials say the shops have sold $8.5 million worth of medical marijuana products since sales began Nov. 9.
Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, and recreational pot is legal in four states, but the drug itself remains illegal under federal law.
Lang's legislation also would change the steps patients must take to receive the drug. The physicians would still have to certify they have a bona fide doctor/patient relationship and that the patient has a qualifying condition, but the physician no longer would have to recommend medical cannabis.
Patients and their caregivers would have to get cards from the state verifying they meet requirements every three years, rather than every year, and they would be required to be fingerprinted only once, rather than annually.
The Illinois House could take up the legislation as early as Sunday, when lawmakers return to Springfield for the final days of the legislative session that ends Tuesday. The bill still must also be approved by the Senate before being sent to Rauner for his signature.
This story has been corrected to show the pilot program is for four years, not five.