Medical marijuana advocates ask Gov. Rauner to expand the program


(Chicago Tribune file photo)

By Robert McCoppin, Chicago Tribune

Medical marijuana advocates are mounting a petition drive and social media campaign to convince Gov. Bruce Rauner to greatly expand the program in Illinois — but the governor hasn’t yet given any indication he would do so.

The campaign is driven in part by industry officials who fear their businesses won’t survive without more than the current 4,000 patients statewide. Joining them are patients with a variety of medical conditions including chronic pain and common arthritis, who say they need medical marijuana to relieve their symptoms without the harsh side effects of prescription drugs.

The petition drive has 16,000 signatures, and on Tuesday the Cannabis Patient Advocacy Coalition will post online videos featuring patients and medical officials urging approval. Rauner has until Feb. 1, advocates say, to render a decision on eight qualifying medical conditions recommended by the state Medical Cannabis Advisory Board.


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Monday was a state holiday, and a spokesman for the governor said he could not immediately respond.

Previously, Rauner vetoed bills to expand the pilot program and to decriminalize marijuana in general, instead calling for more conservative steps toward those goals. At issue is whether to include broad designations like intractable pain, meaning pain that doesn’t respond to conventional treatment.

The majority of medical marijuana patients in some other states like California qualify to get the drug based on a diagnosis of chronic pain, but Illinois officials so far have not allowed it, leery of problems that have arisen elsewhere, such as vague and questionable diagnoses.

The first video by the Cannabis Patient Advocacy Coalition features a man identified as a Marine veteran, Jonathan Byrne, who testified at last fall’s advisory board hearing in favor of adding PTSD. In the video, he said he did two tours of combat duty in Iraq, and returned with problems from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over six years, he said, he tried a 33-page list of prescription drugs, a trial-and-error experience he described as a “spray and pray” approach.

Now he’s hoping the state will approve medical marijuana for other vets with PTSD, whom are among the estimated 22 veterans who kill themselves per day.

“It’s the only thing that works and treats my symptoms,” he said, “… without all the pharmaceuticals.”


While medical marijuana has been approved in 23 states, it still faces significant opposition. It remains illegal under federal law, classified with heroin as the most dangerous level of drug.

The American Psychiatric Association states that there is no scientific evidence that marijuana benefits any psychiatric disorder, and the American Medical Association does not advocate the use of marijuana as medicine. Liana Bran, director of the Substance-Free Workplace Program for the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, spoke out against adding new conditions before the advisory board, calling it premature.

“The State of Illinois has simply not had the time to track the impact this program will have on its citizens, let alone any of the other states that have similar initiated marijuana legalization programs,” she said. “This issue is all the more important, as many of the new conditions being proposed will open the program to large sections of the population, and some, such as PTSD and autism, to especially vulnerable populations.”

Members of the Illinois advisory panel, which includes leading doctors at major medical institutions, such as chairwoman Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple, director of integrative medicine at the University of Chicago, have said all drugs come with side effects, and more research is needed, but marijuana’s potential benefits significantly outweigh the risks.

Michael Fine, the co-chair of the advisory panel and the only member appointed by Rauner, said he gets marijuana through the program to treat pain from having his left arm ripped off in an automobile accident six years ago.

“It’s been life-changing,” he said of taking marijuana, which allows him to reduce his intake of prescription narcotics. “It allows me to be functional during the day, instead of a zoned-out vessel on the couch. I feel like I’m me.”

Under the state’s medical marijuana law, patients with one of about 40 specified medical conditions may get a doctor’s recommendation to buy marijuana from state-approved dispensaries. Approved conditions include cancer, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis and complex regional pain syndrome.

In September, the Illinois Department of Public Health rejected without explanation 11 new medical conditions recommended by the advisory board, which is made up of doctors, nurses, patients and advocates. The following month, the advisory board made a new recommendation to approve eight conditions: autism, chronic pain due to trauma, chronic pain syndrome, chronic post-operative pain, irritable bowel syndrome, intractable pain, osteoarthritis and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the time he made his initial rejection, Rauner argued that it was premature to expand the program before patients had started getting the drug. Since then, state officials said, the program has rolled out smoothly.

Since the program started selling marijuana in November, wholesale sales have surpassed $1.5 million, generating more than $100,000 in taxes. Many patients have reported benefiting from the drug, while there have been no major reported diversions or thefts, said Kim Morreale, spokeswoman for the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois, which represents growers and sellers.

“The program is working well from a regulatory and public safety standpoint,” she said. “Clearly, we need more patients.”

Due to various delays, the four-year pilot program was almost half over by the time the product became available to the public in November, and is due to expire in 2018, when lawmakers have said they will consider whether to continue it.

Robert McCoppin can be reached at [email protected].

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