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Windy City Cannabis dispensary
A patient from Palos Heights leaves after purchasing marijuana products at the Windy City Cannabis dispensary in Homewood on Monday, Jan. 5, 2016. This is the first south suburban medical marijuana dispensary. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

The first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in Illinois in November. What do we know so far about this alternative treatment of illness? We hear many patients are grateful and that there’s a strain called Pre-98 Bubba Kush that is one fast ticket to euphoria. On the business side, though, there’s surprisingly little buzz.

About 4,000 patients have registered statewide. That’s a slow start, well below early estimates. So if you were picturing long lines at the counter, no. And if you were picturing a Chicago neighborhood or two turning noticeably mellower, definitely not. Illinois isn’t Colorado. We’re a long way from legalizing recreational pot use and officially celebrating cannabis culture.

The highly regulated system in Illinois is designed to provide people suffering from specific diseases and conditions some relief from their symptoms. There are about 40 such illnesses on the list, including cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and Parkinson’s.

What’s not on the list — and should be added, according to a state panel led by medical experts — are several more conditions, including two broad categories of suffering: chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. The decision is up to Gov. Bruce Rauner. We think he should accept the panel’s recommendation.

Illinois is about halfway through a four-year pilot program approved by the legislature and signed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn after several years of debate. The state has been rightly cautious on this issue. California, no surprise, was first to allow medical use, passing a ballot initiative in 1996. That’s now legal in 23 states. Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have also legalized the recreational use of pot.

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To their credit, Quinn and Rauner were very deliberate in the process of approving licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana.

It shouldn’t be easy to buy or sell medical marijuana, and it isn’t. There are strict rules for the growers and dispensers. Patients need a permit, which requires submitting to fingerprinting, plus a doctor’s diagnosis of an approved illness. If there are only a few thousand customers so far, investors had to know this new and unusual industry wouldn’t, um, blossom overnight.

Separate from the business side is the question of adding to the potential patient base by expanding the approved illness list. The state put in place a system for considering the health of patients, which, after all, is the purpose of legalizing medical marijuana. There’s a set calendar for accepting patient petitions and forwarding them to the state Medical Cannabis Advisory Board for consideration.

Windy City Cannabis dispensary
Robert McCarthy, 30, leaves after purchasing marijuana products at the Windy City Cannabis dispensary in Homewood on Monday, Jan. 5, 2016. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

In October, the board, which consists of doctors, nurses, patients and advocates, recommended adding eight medical conditions to the list of approved diseases and conditions: autism, chronic pain due to trauma, chronic pain syndrome, chronic postoperative pain, irritable bowel syndrome, intractable pain, osteoarthritis and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple, a Chicago-area physician and chair of the advisory board, said the group scrutinized scientific research and listened to patients. The board has rejected requests to add anxiety as a condition because it is too broad, she said. But the eight conditions the board approved would give doctors the ability to prescribe relief to patients with specific maladies or long-term pain. A significant bonus, she said, is providing safer alternatives to powerful painkillers that can be highly addictive or even kill.

“The dispensaries have only been open six to eight weeks, and the feedback I’ve gotten so far from my patients and other patients is: They are glowing,” Temple told us. “They are happy. They are dropping their pain medications. They are sleeping. I’m hearing nothing but gratitude at this point.”

Most states that allow medical marijuana permit its use to address pain. There are many people in Illinois, including veterans with PTSD, who struggle to get through their days — and nights. When properly prescribed by a doctor, cannabis can be an enormous relief.

In September, the governor rejected the board’s recommendation to add 11 conditions. That was before the dispensaries were open. There should be a higher confidence level now that the system can work without being abused. More patients should have the opportunity. And with that, Illinois will have a more complete track record when it comes time to consider whether the medical marijuana law should be continued.


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