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Experts outline successes and flaws of Illinois’ medical cannabis program

A panel of experts speaks to the crowd Monday night at the Reader's Medical Cannabis 101 event at mHUB in West Town. | Marina Labarthe del Solar/Sun-Times

A panel of experts met Monday night to discuss changing attitudes and approaches toward medical cannabis and the successes and shortcomings of Illinois’ pilot program at a Medical Cannabis 101 event in West Town.

The state’s medical cannabis program was started just over two years ago. By the end of last year, 34,700 people had applied for the program, which covers patients who have been diagnosed with at least one of the 41 debilitating conditions the state has approved, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

But adding to the list of conditions that are currently covered under the program has been a slow process, state Sen. Don Harmon told the audience.

State Sen. Don Harmon speaks Monday night at the Reader’s Medical Cannabis 101 event at mHUB in West Town. | Marina Labarthe del Solar/Sun-Times

Harmon – who introduced a bill that would expand the state’s program to include people who have been prescribed opioid painkillers – said there has been a “dramatic political shift” with regards to cannabis use, relating it to the change in public opinion regarding same-sex marriage.

The measure is currently being debated in the Senate, and he is confident it can make it out of both houses of the legislature.

Illinois’ program has shown some signs of early success. Last year, total retail sales by the Illinois’ 53 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries exceeded $85 million, according to statistics compiled by the state.

Some think expanding the pilot program, or legalizing the drug, would create an even greater tax windfall for the state.

Earlier Monday, Harmon spoke to members of the League of Women Voters of Oak Park & River Forest about how they thought the state could create more revenue. The entire group cheered when one of the members proposed legalizing marijuana. He saw the response as a sign of the changing public perception toward cannabis.

“If the League of Women Voters of Oak Park & River Forest are full-throatedly endorsing the legalization and taxation of cannabis, I think something has changed,” he said.

Dr. Rahul Khare, CEO of Innovative Care Express in Lincoln Park, noted the state’s program has been hampered by doctors who are uncomfortable prescribing cannabis to patients who could potentially benefit from the drug. He said this results from a general wariness in the community over a lack of research into the drug’s effects, which stems from its quasi-legal status.

Khare said his clinic has helped people get off more addicitive medications. He noted that he’s helped roughly 50 people kick highly-addictive benzodiazepines, like Xanax, which are typically used to treat anxiety.

“Cannabis is a wonderful drug for anxiety,” he added.

Dr. Rahul Khare addresses the crowd Monday night at the Reader’s Medical Cannabis 101 event at mHUB. | Marina Labarthe del Solar/Sun-Times

The drug is also being used to treat people with epilepsy, including children. Ayesha Akhtar, who serves as the director of education at the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago, said non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) oil can be used as an effective medication to control seizures.

However, schools in Illinois currently don’t allow children with epilepsy to bring CBD oil to school to medicate. That places a burden on parents to pick up their children during the school day to bring them home so they can take their medication.

“Can you imagine how much time is being wasted in all that transportation,” Akhtar asked. “If they have a legal prescription, they could easily be taking their medication on school property.”

Earlier this year, a school in northwest suburban Schaumburg allowed an 11-year-old girl diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia to use CBD to treat her condition at school, according to a report from CNN.

“This is an example of one little success story,” Akhtar said. “But there is so much more work that we need to do.”

Rosa Nicolosi serves as a patient care manager at The Herbal Care Center, a medical cannabis dispensary in the Illinois Medical District. Nicolosi, who is also a medical cannabis patient, said Illinois’ program currently only allows people to register at one dispensary at a time, which can be inconvenient for some patients. She added that dispensaries can only carry cannabis that has been grown in Illinois.

The state’s strict guidelines are also affecting patients’ access to the medical cannabis cards that are needed to get the drug from dispensaries.

RELATED: Can expanding the state’s medical cannabis program help curb the opioid crisis?

Harmon said he is working to amend his bill to address a growing backlog of people applying for the cards. The wait period is supposed to be 30 days, but it has grown to between 90 and 120 days. Harmon blamed the problem on the inaction of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “uncooperative administration.”

The Democrat said he is adopting a 14-day wait period for his bill because he doesn’t want patients to have to wait months before they have access to an alternative to opioids.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying tackle in the amendment is how to streamline this process to make sure that we can get the administration to get out of the way,” Harmon said.

Rauner’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rauner’s opponent in the upcoming gubernatorial race, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, has proposed legalizing cannabis statewide for recreational use.

Harmon noted that lawmakers are currently considering whether to include a nonbinding referendum on November’s statewide ballot that would ask voters whether they support the legalization of recreational cannabis. Last month, nearly 70 percent of voters in Cook County backed a similar referendum.

Monday’s Medical Cannabis 101 event was sponsored by the Reader.