Illinois’ medical cannabis pilot program in trouble because of low patient numbers


By Mike Fitzgerald, Belleville News-Democrat

A shortage of doctors willing to sign medical marijuana cards has put the program in trouble in Illinois, barely before it gets off the ground.

Only 3,600 patients statewide have obtained them, according to David Friedman, who heads a firm that invests in and reports on the medical cannabis industry. Friedman had predicted that Illinois would have 30,000 patients with medical marijuana cards by now, and that 70,000 would have them by the end of 2017.

“By any stretch of the imagination we are well under those estimates,” said Friedman, who heads up MJIC Inc. in Chicago. “Even with 30,000 or 70,000 patients, we’re going to struggle to break even” before the pilot program ends.


Illinois is in the third year of a five-year pilot program. If Illinois’ medical marijuana pilot program is in trouble, then its woes in large part stem from the experiences of prospective patients such as Gail Schmidt, 63, of Belleville.

Schmidt suffers from Stage 4 colon cancer, which qualifies her to obtain a state medical cannabis card — a step she wants to take to mitigate the pain that comes from her treatments. However, Schmidt can’t find a physician in the metro-east willing to see her to sign a card for her. In fact, she doesn’t even know where to begin looking for one.

“Nobody wants to approach it,” Schmidt said. “Every time we bring it up to a different doctor, none of them believe in it. They just give you the runaround.”

The state agency that oversees the pilot program does not keep a physician registry, while health insurance companies — the traditional place you start when looking for a health-care provider — apparently want nothing to do with medical marijuana.

Friedman pointed out that tens of thousands of new patients would have to be added to the state medical cannabis registry before the law expires if the entrepreneurs who’ve spent millions of dollars setting up dispensaries and cultivation centers around the state have any hope of making money through the program.

The Illinois General Assembly must vote to extend the law that launched the pilot program — an iffy proposition under Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor who has made no secret of his opposition to medical cannabis.

“Some of these cultivators are dumping $6 [million] to $8 [million] to $10 million in their facilities,” Friedman said. Whether there’s “3,600, 36,000, or 100,000 [patients], they’re not going to get their money back in two years.”


And there’s no hope of adding those new patients unless the state acts quickly to overhaul the law and enact provisions that lengthen the list of qualifying conditions and that eliminate major hurdles, such as the mandate that all patients get finger-printed before they can obtain a card, according to medical cannabis entrepreneurs interviewed.

One of the first things the state can do is set up a registry of physicians willing to sign patients’ cards, said Tanya Griffin, an Althoff Catholic High School graduate who oversees Illinois operations for TGS, a company that plans to open a medical cannabis dispensary in Sauget in February.

“Try doing a Google search to find a doctor who can recommend [medical cannabis] in our area,” Griffin said. “Good luck with that. I have my team calling and searching every day. We got sick patients, terminal patients, and we can’t find a single doctor to assist. We need some help, we need some help educating these doctors that their licenses aren’t on the line.”

In the metro-east only, two physicians have come forward to say they are willing to sign the cards for patients wishing to use medical marijuana: Dr. David Yablonsky, of Maryville, and Dr. Gregory Randle, the medical director of Vigilant, a firm that runs anesthesia and pain management clinics in Edwardsville and Maryville.

Randle said a lot of his patients come to him after years on powerful opiate-based pain medications such as Oxycontin, which are highly addictive, dangerous and have serious side effects on patient health.

Opiates have “more of a downside to me than medical cannabis,” Randle said. “The complications associated with medical cannabis don’t even come close. So my comfort level with it is probably higher than it is for most physicians because I do have so many patients on chronic opioid. So I’m trying to find a way, ‘Hey, how do we get off these opioid for a lot of these patients and do something much more natural and hopefully be much more effective?'”

Patients who suffer from qualifying ailments and conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS, cancer, lupus and Parkinson’s disease, plus 34 other illnesses, may buy medical cannabis, provided they qualify for a state-required ID card. Illinois could vastly expand its patient base if it included on its list of approved conditions such medical problems as chronic anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, Friedman said.

Meanwhile, the man in charge of the state’s medical cannabis program said he’s pleased with how it has rolled out so far.

“I think so far on balance, things tend to be rolling out smoothly,” program director Joseph Wright said. “Patients are able to access the medicine that they need, and we are constantly monitoring any issues that arise.”

Wright acknowledged improvements need to be made, but declined to specify in what form.

“Certainly we are aware this is an iterative process and will involve improvements and efficiencies over time,” he said. “It’s our hope we stay in that upward trajectory.”

Since last month, 1,713 unique patients have purchased nearly $801,000 worth of cannabis during the program’s first month, generating $56,550 in taxes from wholesale cannabis sales. Wright declined to comment on claims that the program is being hampered by a shortage of physicians willing to sign medical cannabis cards.

“I just don’t have enough information to say if that would be a problem or not,” he said.

The wait for legal medical marijuana in Illinois ended Nov. 9, when eight licensed dispensaries across the state opened up for business. In the metro-east, a state-approved cultivation center in East St. Louis won permission to begin growing medical marijuana, while two metro-east dispensaries — in Sauget and Collinsville — are under construction and plan to open for business early next year.

Of 23 states with medical marijuana programs, Illinois has one of the most-restrictive, requiring patients to undergo fingerprint-based background checks, limiting qualifying health conditions, mandating testing for pesticides and banning home-grown pot.

The state’s first medical marijuana crops have already been harvested. The state-licensed cultivation center in Albion, located 120 miles east of Belleville, near the Indiana border, has announced it will be sending its product to dispensary shelves across the state later this month.

And the Illinois Department of Agriculture has given the green light to Progressive Treatment Solutions, of Chicago, to begin growing medical cannabis at the firm’s East St. Louis cultivation center, located in a former U.S. Cellular data center off Illinois 3, near the old National City stockyards.

Griffin has drawn optimism from the fact that Congress, in a spending bill passed last week, ended the federal ban on medical marijuana. The spending bill prohibits federal agents from raiding retail stores that sell medical cannabis.

This step ends two decades of conflict between states and Congress over the question of whether medical marijuana was legal. But there still remains the issue of educating physicians on the benefits of medical cannabis and on the fact that they aren’t jeopardizing their careers or licenses if they recommend it, Griffin said.

“We’ve got a real problem on our hands,” she said. “I’m concerned about the investors and I’m equally concerned about the patients. Illinois’ draconian little ways of doing this and putting up barriers to access for patients is not in line with the rest of the country.”

Friedman said Illinois was right to be cautious when it set up the pilot program, but now is time to loosen some of the restrictions and increase the pool of potential patients.

“I’ve always been a walk-before-you-run kind of guy,” he said. “And they did that. It’s just that they’ve been walking for a little too long. They need to start jogging a little bit.”

Mike Fitzgerald can be reached at 618-239-2533 or on Twitter @MikeFitz3000.

(c)2015 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)

Visit the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.) at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.