Getting a medical marijuana card is easier than ever — and it could help you avoid lines, save money when recreational sales start

Those who qualify can start buying legal weed within less than 24 hours after applying.

SHARE Getting a medical marijuana card is easier than ever — and it could help you avoid lines, save money when recreational sales start
Tashena Altman, one of the first people covered by the Illinois’ Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, checks in Friday morning at a medical marijuana dispensary in Elmwood Park. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Tashena Altman, who got her medical marijuana card last year, checks in at a marijuana dispensary in Elmwood Park earlier this year.

Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Want to skip lines at dispensaries, avoid hefty taxes and have access to a consistent pot supply after recreational marijuana is legalized?

If you qualify for a medical cannabis card, you can do just that — and a streamlined process means you might be able to start buying weed less than 24 hours after submitting an application.

Illinois’ medical pot program, made permanent in August, has recently undergone a massive expansion after years ofstringent control while it was a pilot. In addition to the 52 conditions covered by the program — including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and autism — state residents who have been prescribed opioid painkillers can now access medical marijuana through the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program.

With less than two weeks until weed is fully legalized across Illinois, state lawmakers are warning of a supply shortage as the limited number of dispensaries gear up for a huge influx of new customers. Though the state’s stash may quickly be depleted, medical patients will be able to breeze past the lines at many dispensaries and buy cannabis from reserves state law requires pot shops to keep.

In addition to having priority access to a guaranteed supply of pot products, medical patients will still be subjected to only a 1% state sales tax — far less less than what recreational users will pay.

Come Jan. 1, recreational products face state taxes ranging from 10%-25%, depending on the level of THC. Meanwhile, cities and towns will start collecting additional sales taxes in July. Chicago plans to add a 3% excise tax at that time, and Cook County has proposed a 3 percent tax.

Medical patients will also be able to grow up to five plants in their homes, a privilege that was stripped out of the recreational pot law over concerns that homegrown grass would inevitably make its way into the black market.

Andy Seeger — cannabis research manager of the Loop-based Brightfield Group, which analyzes the weed industry — said increased awareness and the high price of recreational pot products has prompted the number of medical patients to spike when states have fully legalized the drug. He expects the same to happen in Illinois.

“We have seen patient counts in medical markets continue to grow post adult-use legalization for three to four years, and then begin to stagnate or decline as the full market stabilizes,” said Seeger.

The falloff happens when the price of marijuana drops and medical patients begin buying from recreational shops and stop renewing their licenses, he added. The end result is typically a market in which 90% of users are recreational and the rest are enrolled in the medical program.

How to get a card

As Illinois’ medical program has expanded, the process for obtaining a license has been streamlined.

Residents can submit an application via the Illinois Department of Public Health website that includes a doctor certification form, proof of age and residency and a passport photo. Applications fees for one-, two- and three-year cannabis cards cost $100, $200 and $250, respectively.

The state has done away with the requirement for a fingerprint-based background check and now offers applicants provisional access to medical products for three months while their paperwork is being processed. Applicants with provisional access can only purchase cannabis from a single dispensary of their choosing but can switch to another shop after being awarded a license.

The state says that if you qualify and submit your application before 6 p.m. on a weekday, you will be able to download a provisional card and begin buying pot products after 8:30 a.m. the next day.

As of November 30, 94,373 patients had enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis program and another 1,955 had been approved for the opioid alternative program.

“It’s a smooth process, just like going to the pharmacy to pick up my pain pills,” Tashena Altman, a Beverly who was diagnosed at birth with sickle cell anemia, said at the time the opioid program launched earlier this year.

Here’s the state’s full list of qualifying conditions:

  • Autism
  • Agitation of Alzheimer’s disease
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Arnold-Chiari malformation
  • Cancer
  • Cachexia/wasting syndrome
  • Causalgia
  • Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy
  • Chronic pain
  • Crohn’s disease
  • CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome Type II)
  • Dystonia
  • Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
  • Fibrous Dysplasia
  • Glaucoma
  • Hepatitis C
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Hydromyelia
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Lupus
  • Migraines
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Myasthenia Gravis
  • Myoclonus
  • Nail-patella syndrome
  • Neuro-Bechet’s autoimmune disease
  • Neurofibromatosis
  • Neuropathy
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Polycystic kidney disease (PKD)
  • Post-Concussion Syndrome
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Reflex sympathetic dystrophy
  • Residual limb pain
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Seizures (including those characteristic of Epilepsy)
  • Severe fibromyalgia
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Spinal cord disease (including but not limited to arachnoiditis)
  • Spinal cord injury is damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity
  • Spinocerebellar ataxia
  • Superior canal dehiscence syndrome
  • Syringomyelia
  • Tarlov cysts
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Ulcerative colitis

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