Pot Topics is a weekly collection of cannabis-related news curated by the Chicago Sun-Times. Here’s this week’s top stories:

  • Gov. Rauner signs bill giving opioid patients access to medical pot
  • Chicago-based pot company reports huge growth after public offering
  • More job opportunities, higher salaries reported in the cannabis industry
  • Debate rages in California over legal pot deliveries
  • Nevada weed sales exceed expectations by 40 percent
  • Oregon marijuana cultivators will now report harvests to officials

Illinois’ new “Alternatives to Opioids Act” now law

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill in late August that gives people who have been prescribed opioids the option to use cannabis as an alternative treatment option, a move that could significantly expand the state’s medical cannabis pilot program.

“Opioid abuse disorder is taking the lives of Illinoisans, thousands of lives. Opioid abuse disorder is disrupting and destroying families across our state and across the country,” Rauner said at the bill signing at the Chicago Recovery Alliance on the West Side. “We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic, and today, I’m proud to sign a bill that helps us stop this epidemic.”

“Medical cannabis creates an opportunity to treat pain in a less intrusive, less obstructive way than opioids,” Rauner said.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the Alternatives to Opioids Act Tuesday at the Chicago Recovery Alliance. | Lisa Mann for Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the Alternatives to Opioids Act Tuesday at the Chicago Recovery Alliance. | Lisa Mann for Sun-Times

Starting in December, opioid patients will be able to obtain a temporary medical cannabis card that will remain valid for up to 60 days. A doctor can then extend a patient’s access beyond that point.

It’s unclear how many new medical cannabis patients will be added under the law. However, more than 5 million opioid prescriptions were doled out to over 2 million Illinoisans last year, according to Jack Campbell, director of the state’s medical cannabis program.

In order to buy marijuana at Illinois dispensaries, patients with one of 41 qualifying conditions, including cancer and HIV/AIDS, must currently receive certification from a doctor and apply for an identification card through the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The new law also aims to expedite this clunky process, which has resulted in a large backlog of applicants. Qualifying patients and those with an opioid prescription will soon be able to buy cannabis products with only a doctor’s recommendation while their applications are being processed. In addition, new applicants will no longer have to submit to fingerprinting or background checks, a change that will go into effect immediately.

Rauner has been resistant to expanding the medical marijuana program in the past, rejecting recommendations for expansion from the now-defunct Cannabis Advisory Board and vetoing a bill in 2015 that would have given people with post-traumatic stress disorder access to the drug. A Cook County judge later ordered the state to add PTSD to the list of medical conditions covered under the program.

But lawmakers from both parties backed this latest bill as they continue to search for ways to respond to the mounting toll of the opioid crisis.

Preliminary figures released this month by the Centers for Disease Control showed there were 2,760 reported overdose deaths in Illinois over a 12-month span that ended in January, up more than 9 percent from the previous year. The majority of the deaths were attributed to opioids.

On Tuesday, Rauner said he “came to a big conclusion” after studying the issue for months.

“I am very much opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana. But it’s clear from the research, and I prefer to focus on evidence and research results,” Rauner said. “It’s clear that medical cannabis treats pain effectively, and it is less addictive and less disruptive than opioids. Creating that option is an important step forward to improve health quality, and that’s why I signed the bill.”

Rauner cited “clear evidence” that shows opioid deaths decreasing by almost 15 percent in areas where medical cannabis has been approved as an option to treat pain.

On Tuesday, the governor said it’s “very possible” that more qualifying conditions could be added to the state’s medical pot program.

Meanwhile, cannabis activists and some of the state’s top pot companies cheered the bill’s approval.

“This new law provides access to medical cannabis as a non-lethal form of pain relief to millions of patients across Illinois and it’s a big step in truly recognizing cannabis as medicine,” said Charlie Bachtell, CEO of Cresco Labs, Illinois’ largest medical pot producer.

Cresco Labs launched a multi-state anti-opioid campaign Wednesday morning at the Thompson Center to highlight ways cannabis can help combat the drug epidemic. Their center-piece: a faux-drug dispensing vending machine set up on the proverbial front step of the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, Illinois state government’s home away from home.

Chicago-based pot company reports huge growth after going public in Canada

The Canadian Securities Exchange is quickly becoming the go-to place for U.S. cannabis companies orphaned by their own stock exchanges because the U.S. government still considers marijuana an illegal drug.

Ben Kovler, founder and chairman of Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries | AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Chicago-based medical pot giant Green Thumb Industries, better known as GTI, announced that the company’s revenues increased by nearly 300 percent in the second quarter of 2018, when GTI went public in Canada through a reverse takeover of another company.

GTI, which owns dispensaries and cultivation centers in multiple states, raised $61 million through the takeover, according to a statement from the company. The influx of cash will allow GTI to get licenses in new states and open more retail stores across the country.

“The second quarter was a critical quarter for GTI,” the company’s founder and chairman Ben Kivler said. “We became a publicly-traded company on June 13th. The team has been hard at work and that is reflected in the results for our first reporting period as a public company – generating solid revenue growth, raising capital, entering new markets and attracting top talent.”

During the latest quarter, GTI’s revenues increased to $13.6 million, a 25 percent jump from the previous quarter, the statement said. In addition, the company’s net income rose to nearly a half million dollars, up from a loss of $1.6 million in this year’s first quarter.

GTI’s assets totaled nearly $129 million by the end of June, according to the statement. The company has nearly $8 million of total debt, $1.4 million of which is due within months.

Report shows more jobs, higher salaries in bud biz

Stocking shelves with cannabis products at a Los Angeles store. | AP photo

Stocking shelves with cannabis products at a Los Angeles store. | AP photo

A new report shows that salaries for cannabis workers have increased significantly over the past year as jobs in the industry have grown more in demand.

From January 2017 to August, cannabis job listings have increased 690 percent, according to the report from Vangst, an industry-leading staffing firm based in Denver. In the same period, average salaries in the industry have grown by more than 16 percent.

Experienced cultivation directors, who oversee marijuana growing operations, can earn more than $250,000 a year, making them the industry’s highest earners, according to Vangst’s survey of more than 1,200 pot companies. Meanwhile, less experienced cultivation directors earn roughly $47,000.

Salaries for experienced pot trimmers, the lowest earners included in the survey, were $14.50 an hour. Inexperienced trimmers earn as little as $11.50 an hour, according to the survey.

The report estimates the cannabis industry will grow by an estimated 220 percent in the coming year.

Despite the industry’s growth and the growing demand for jobs, some cannabis workers still aren’t offered retirement or health care benefits.

Twenty-one percent of the pot-centric companies surveyed offer no benefits to their employees, while only 29 percent of employers offer a 401k plan or employee stock options, the report said.

Additionally, 71 percent of employers offer medical insurance to pot industry workers, the report said. But just over half of the pot-centric employers surveyed offer dental insurance, while only 46 percent offer vision insurance or packages that include coverage for all three.

California cops, cities fight statewide weed deliveries

A growing dispute over where legal marijuana can be delivered in California is unsettling the nation's largest pot market.

A worker stands at a booth advertising Pot Valet, a Los Angeles-based delivery service for cannabis. | AP file photo

On Friday, California police chiefs rallied against a proposed rule that critics say would allow for unchecked pot deliveries anywhere in the state, including communities that have banned marijuana sales.

The California Police Chiefs Association, League of California Cities and United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council are asking opponents of the proposal to sign an online petition. The group has also set up a website that features children gesturing toward a pot delivery van parked outside a school.

“Regulated marijuana dispensaries have tough security, checks for identity and legal age and strictly licensed workers,” council executive director James Araby said in a statement. “If marijuana can be delivered anywhere with virtually no regulation, California will lose these safeguards.”

The debate over the proposal continues to brew as the state considers major changes to its legal pot marketplace. The dispute could ultimately wind up in court.

But there are different opinions on what the proposal in question would really mean.

Supporters claim the move would allow licensed deliveries to pot deserts, areas where local cannabis sales have been prohibited. They hold that sick and frail people in those areas are being shut out of the legal pot market because they can’t drive to buy the drug.

Police chiefs and other critics say it would create quasi-legal market of hidden pot transactions, paving the way for criminal activity.

A maze of conflicting laws and regulations underpins the debate.

Proposition 64, the law California voters approved in 2016 that legalized pot in the state, holds that local governments can ban recreational pot businesses. However, state regulators point to the business and professions code, which says local governments “shall not prevent delivery of cannabis or cannabis products on public roads” by a licensed operator.

The bureau that oversees the state’s cannabis market has said the proposed rule would merely clarify that a licensed pot delivery can be made to “any jurisdiction within the state.” A proposal to clarify that a licensed business can deliver pot anywhere in California stalled in the state Senate.

Nevada pot sales topple expectations

The first full year of legal marijuana sales in Nevada exceeded expectations by 40 percent, state tax officials said Tuesday.

Essence cannabis dispensary in Las Vegas. | AP file photo

Nevada’s first year of legal pot sales exceeded the state’s expectations by 40 percent.

Taxable weed sales amounted to nearly $530 million, raising nearly $70 million in revenue during the fiscal year that ended in June, according to the Nevada Department of Taxation. Recreational pot sales, which were legalized in July 2017, made up for roughly 80 percent of sales, while medical pot sales accounted for the other 20 percent.

Combined tax revenue from recreational and medical marijuana sales will total an estimated $69.4 million, according to Bill Anderson, the state’s tax director.

“As we move into fiscal year 2019, we expect to see continued growth in the industry by way of additional businesses opening up, and we expect revenue to continue to be strong,” Anderson said.

Oregon pot cultivators have to start notifying officials about harvests

Oregon has an excellent pot-growing climate, and its rules allow applicants to have multiple licenses, permit out-of-state investment, and don't cap grower licenses — generous policies that have resulted in an oversupply of legal weed, with growers desperate to unload crops now worth half of what they were.

Matthew Miller looks over a marijuana seedling in Cave Junction, Oregon. | AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

Starting Saturday, pot growers in Oregon will have to notify state officials about new harvests, a move that’s intended to ensure that marijuana grown in the state isn’t being diverted elsewhere.

The new policy is among a list of new measures put forth to appease federal officials who have criticized Oregon’s “relaxed” marijuana regulations and oversight.

Oregon’s current pot rules don’t cap grower licenses and allow out-of-state investment, policies that have contributed to an oversupply of legal pot in the state.

The harvest notification rule has upset many cultivators in the state who argue that it adds more bureaucracy to an industry struggling to stay afloat.

“They don’t do this to any other agricultural crop in the world,” said Matthew Miller, of Millerville Farms in southern Oregon.

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