‘Long time coming,’ medical marijuana patients say

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Laura Furlan talks about buying medical marijuana Monday. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Medical marijuana finally went on sale in Illinois with five dispensaries opening their doors Monday, clearing the last hurdle in a process mired in bureaucratic red tape since the pilot program was approved two years ago.

The day was a hopeful one for many of the 3,300 patients who’ve been approved to buy the drug to combat a list of conditions and diseases ranging from HIV to cancer.

Bill Wilson, 52, who wakes up and goes to sleep every night with back pain that often borders on severe, was one of the first patients to walk out of the new Addison dispensary with a brown bag that was stapled shut. Inside was $250 worth of marijuana divided between several small plastic bottles.

Dispensaries also opened Monday downstate Marion, Quincy, Canton and Mundelein.

Dispensaries have also been approved by the state to open in Evanston, North Aurora, Ottawa and Schaumburg. Those locations, all run by a company called PharmaCannis, might begin dispensing marijuana later this week or next week.

“There’s a stigma attached to this, and I hope that it disappears quickly,” Wilson said. “When you are in pain every day, it takes a psychological toll on you that is just, you can’t believe it, because every day you’re just miserable and you’re snapping at people and you’re irritable.” His wife and daughter know all about it.

In August, Wilson took a trip to Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, to experiment with edible forms of the drug such as gummy bears and candy bars.

The results were encouraging.

“My pain and my mood was just exceptional. It really helps a lot,” said Wilson, 52, who lives just west of Midway Airport and worked at the Chicago Board of Trade for years before he was forced to retire and go on disability because of the pain. He has degenerative spinal disease.

Wilson planned to use the marijuana Monday afternoon in a vaporizer, though he prefers edibles.

Gus Koukoutsakis, 43, who owns and operates EarthMed in Addison, said he hopes to get edibles on his shelves in a few weeks.

Koukoutsakis also owns a bar in Addison and has a background in real estate.

Reporters were not allowed inside the dispensary. Only patients approved by the state have access. But Koukoutsakis described the layout.

“It’s designed like a medical facility,” he said. However it has a “much more comfortable lobby and waiting room” and a “very sophisticated security system.”

“As you walk in there’s a vestibule with bulletproof glass where you present your medical ID. Once that’s scanned, and it’s verified you are a patient, then you’re allowed to come into the stricter area of the lobby and waiting room,” Koukoutsakis said.

“Once you’re in there, our patient specialist will have a one-on-one with you and ask your condition and symptoms and make a recommendation.”

The decor is comfortable, he said. “There’s some paintings and stuff like that, you’re not going to find any Bob Marley posters, although I like Bob Marley,” he said. Glass pipes and vaporizers are also for sale.

A gram of marijuana sells for between $18 and $20 with tax included, Koukoutsakis said.

Patients must register with the dispensary they plan to visit.

Koukoutsakis said between 200 and 300 patients have registered at EarthMed, which has only one location and is not affiliated with any other dispensaries in the area or around the country.

A state database will track marijuana sales so that patients cannot exceed the legal limit of 2 1/2 ounces every 14 days.

A total of 18 grow houses and 60 dispensaries have been approved by the state, but the number of dispensaries that open this year may be closer to 50, according to state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, a champion of the state’s four-year medical marijuana pilot program that runs through 2017. Nearly 40 medical conditions have been approved by the state to qualify for the program. Some conditions have been rejected; others are pending approval.

“Today’s rollout is not perfect,” Lang said Monday. “There are certainly many dispensaries that aren’t ready or have limited product, there aren’t enough patients and we still have doctors who aren’t prescribing or recommending cannabis to their patients. But it’s one step on a long road.”

Lang is trying to extend the pilot program so the state can collect more data to use in eventually drafting permanent medical marijuana legislation.

“It was a long time coming,” Laura Furlan said outside of EarthMed, a brown bag full of weed in her hand. “Everyone’s looking forward to some relief.”

Furlan, who lives in Jefferson Park and is battling cancer and multiple sclerosis, said the experience was surreal.

“Everyone inside was talking about their own conditions, and people were coming around answering questions,” she said.

She bought $200 worth of several different strains of marijuana, including sativa, indica and other hybrids.

“Everyone was talking about the kush, so I tried a little gram of that too,” she said.

“It’s a big relief to just be able to obtain this legally,” she said.

“It’s just like buying . . .” she said, stopping abruptly. “It is buying medicine.”

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