If Pot is Legalized in Illinois, What Happens to Medical Marijuana?

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Anyone who figured it would be easy for Democrats to legalize marijuana, think again.

Attempts have stalled in New York and New Jersey. The effort is still alive in Illinois, but there’s only a week or so left before the legislative session is set to adjourn, and negotiations are ongoing.

Where does that leave the state’s blossoming medical marijuana pilot program, which first took effect in 2014 and is set to expire next year?

The program was intentionally restrictive – so much so that when pot dispensaries opened their doors in 2015, sales were slow.

“I think there was a lot of people that didn’t that the program was even going on. I still a lot of people aren’t necessarily informed that it’s going on,” said Paul Lee, the general manager of Chicago’s first cannabis shop, Dispensary 33 in Andersonville.

He says things picked up – especially after former Gov. Bruce Rauner last summer signed a law liberalizing the program. It allows doctors to effectively prescribe marijuana as an alternative to addicting opioids, it removed a requirement that potential patients be fingerprinted, and patients can register for provisional access rather than having to wait months for approval.

Total retail sales since the program’s inception have now topped $323 million, and as of early May, more than 65,500 patients are certified to participate – nearly double the number of patients on the state’s registry at this time last year.

Dispensary 33 is preparing for the day Illinois’ market opens up even more – to anyone 21 or older.

Lee is hiring more employees, increasing training, even redecorating the store with custom cannabis wallpaper and art made of hand-stained sheets cut to the size of rolling paper.

Cannabis cultivation centers, like Cresco Labs, are also expanding in preparation for legal weed.

“Of course, we’re looking down the road at what it could be. So, this facility here in Joliet, you know, we’ve built out to our full capacity and we’re expanding other facilities around the state to be able to accommodate both the future patient growth and an adult-use program here in this state,” Cresco spokesman Jason Erkes said. “We want to be ready for when and if that happens, to be able to accommodate, you know, the patients, the consumers, and anybody that’s interested in buying cannabis products.”

While lawmakers continue to debate what legal pot should look like in Illinois, it seems they have settled on this much: Even if it gets to the point that any adult could get legal weed, Illinois will continue to have a medical marijuana program.