Medical marijuana dispensaries cause controversy


As medical marijuana dispensaries prepare to open in Illinois, questions regarding the legality of cannabis usage have resurfaced. This controversy comes at a crucial point in time as minors could be among the first patients to legally use marijuana under state law.

On Aug. 1, 2013, former Governor Pat Quinn signed the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, making Illinois the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana. The bill took effect five months later, allowing adult patients with one or more of more than three dozen conditions to qualify for the program. These diseases include cancer and Parkinson’s.

At the start of 2015, a modification to the bill allowed minors suffering from seizures to qualify for registry. Unlike patients over the age of 18, minors would only be allowed access to medical cannabis-infused products such as food, oils, ointments and other products that can’t be smoked.

The increase in regulations for patients under the age of 18 aligns with the associated risks in using marijuana at a young age. Nurse Peg Cucci brings attention to a statement released by the American Academy Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), in which it explicitly voiced its concern about the harms of marijuana use on the developing adolescent brain.  According to the statement, adolescents are especially vulnerable to the cognitive and addictive effects of marijuana.

“There is a medical indication for the use of marijuana,” Cucci said. “Some people have a very difficult time controlling their pain, but that is unusual. It needs to be made clear that this is not a carte blanche. It should not be interpreted that marijuana use is safe.”

Cristina Cortesi, Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator, only recommends the use of medical marijuana in very rare situations.  Cortesi personally does not recommend medical marijuana as she believes there are other available medications that are more effective and less harmful.

However for some minors with epilepsy, medical marijuana has made drastic lifestyle changes for the better. Enter Charlotte Figi, an eight-year-old diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome. This severe form of epilepsy left Figi with around 300 seizures a week. After taking medical marijuana, her seizures dropped to two or three a month.

Figi is able to get the medical marijuana she needs as she lives in Colorado, a state where cannabis is legalized. In Illinois, a total of 2800 patients have been approved by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).  Among this number, ten were minors.  As a result, some school districts around the state are already preparing for the possibility of having medical marijuana patients in their school.

Currently, it is illegal to be in possession of marijuana, both medicinal and recreational on school property. Despite the regulations, many fear that the substance may find its way into the wrong hands.

“The answer is simple,” Joseph Friedman said. “There are going to be extremely strict policies.”  Friedman is the founder and Chief Operations Officer of Professional Dispensaries of Illinois (DPI) LLC, preparing to open its first dispensary in Buffalo Grove around early November. All consumers will go through a verification process to ensure their legitimacy as a qualified medical marijuana patient.

“There’s always a chance [medical marijuana] will be used for non intended purposes,” Cortesi said.  “However there are laws in place that will make it difficult for kids to have access to it.”

Marijuana patients will not be able to open or use their prescriptions until they enter their homes. Even if a marijuana prescription is found open in a car, the patient would still be responsible for the legal consequences, Cortesi said. The PDI Medical dispensary will also have a sophisticated security, inventory, anti-diversion and patient tracking system to ensure only registered patients receive cannabis-based-medications.

Both Cortesi and Friedman note that marijuana is not like a typical medication prescribed by your doctor, and therefore will be handled with extra oversight and precautions.  According to Cortesi, the marijuana dispensaries will not resemble stores found in Colorado, as popular belief suggests.  For example, the PDI Medical dispensary will have a pharmacist on duty during business hours.

“I consider [the dispensary] to be a similar in scope to a specialty pharmacy,” Friedman said.  “It’s not your typical CVS or Walgreens drugstore. Medical marijuana is a very specialized drug that is intended to help patients that are experiencing diminished or lack of benefits or relief from typical medications approved by the FDA.”

In addition, the process from being a qualified patient to a State of Illinois registered patient for both adults and minors can be extensive, according to Friedman. Aside from meeting prerequisites such as being a legal resident in the state and providing fingerprints and passport photos among other documents, patients must also have a written certification by a physician which may be difficult to obtain.

“Doctors will be careful in certifying,” Friedman said. “I’ve had a conversation with a doctor who had a patient requesting medical marijuana for his Crohn’s disease, which is one of the qualifying conditions. However, the doctor was weary because of the patient’s lack of need for other drug therapies and young age. His condition was also relatively under control and mild.”

Doctors must fit a list of qualifications from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) in order to provide written certifications. Once certified by a doctor to use marijuana, patients may then send an application to IDPH.

The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis program is a pilot act, meaning that it is not permanent. The bill is set to be repealed in 2018, but an extension may be passed for patients to continue using the drug.