CHICAGO — Regulated medical marijuana sales began Monday in Illinois with patients flocking to state-licensed retail shops in five cities.
Of 23 states with medical marijuana programs, Illinois has one of the most restrictive, requiring patients to undergo fingerprint-based background checks, limiting qualifying health conditions, mandating testing for pesticides and banning home-grown pot.
All the moving pieces and a change in governors delayed the launch. The pilot program expires in 2017.
Among the first buyers Monday was Maggie Chatterton, a 25-year-old homemaker in central Illinois, who drove with her husband and two children 20 miles to the Salveo Health & Wellness dispensary in Canton where doors opened around 9:30 a.m.
Chatterton is emblematic of how Americans are rethinking marijuana. A gardener and beekeeper who sells her wares at farmers markets, she's concerned about side effects of prescription drugs and believes cannabis is safer. She said she taught her 4-year-old son it's a natural medicine.
"I'm pretty excited about it. I didn't think that something like this would happen in Illinois," Chatterton said. The price — $385 an ounce — seemed fair, she said, for a drug she hopes will help her manage spinal pain.
About 3,300 patients with Illinois-issued ID cards were able to purchase medical cannabis at one of five dispensaries opening Monday. Besides Canton, retail shops in Addison, Marion, Mundelein and Quincy were the first with possibly 25 opening by the end of the year.
In the southern Illinois city of Marion, about 100 people cheered when a dispensary called Harbory opened at 1 p.m. Kevin Sauls, 54, of Ridgway said he'd arrived at 5 a.m. and was first in line. He spent about $100 for a quarter-ounce of marijuana.
"We are making history today," he told The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale.
Here are more details about the Illinois program:
REVENUE AND BUDGET IMPASSE
Illinois' budget stalemate has had no significant effect on the program, which has been funded through fees paid by the industry and patients.
There's no official estimate of the amount of tax revenue the program will generate, but it already has collected nearly $11 million in fees from businesses and patients.
Tyler Anthony, a Chicago attorney with the Canna Law Group, said Illinois patients can be legally impaired for driving with any amount of cannabis in their systems even if not "subjectively impaired."
"Some patients, especially those who medicate regularly, may walk around legally impaired without even realizing it," Anthony said. Illinois law offers some protection from arrest, stating that a cannabis ID card does not constitute probable cause or reasonable suspicion and can't be used alone as justification for a search.
"Even though there are these statutory protections, patients should prepare to be asked about their cards" during traffic stops, he said. "It's important that they know their rights during traffic stops and other interactions with police."
ON THE JOB
Patients can get fired for using marijuana in violation of a workplace drug policy. Illinois law allows employers to enforce drug-free workplace requirements, including drug testing. On the other hand, employers can choose to allow workers to use medical marijuana.
"You never know how an employer might react," said Bob Morgan, president of the Illinois Cannabis Bar Association and the former coordinator of the Illinois program. While there's an argument for being upfront with an employer, Morgan said, "generally speaking, I expect most employers won't overtly allow the use of cannabis."
CROSSING STATE LINES
An Illinois driver's license is good in other states. Can a card-holding patient use marijuana in another state while on vacation?
It depends, Anthony said. "By my count, Illinois patients can obtain medical cannabis products in seven states (Arizona, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire and Rhode Island), and at least two others eventually, once their programs are up and running (Maryland & Hawaii)."
Patients must register with the state where they want to buy. Federal and state laws prohibit transporting marijuana across state lines.
"Obviously, patients cannot return with their medicine from out of state," Anthony said. "But if they are on an extended visit or vacation, they don't have to worry about bringing their medicine with them."
PRICES AND TRACKING
A digital tracking system discourages diversion of marijuana to the black market. Illinois is monitoring products from seed to sale.
High prices also discourage diversion. With medicine costing roughly the same as illegal weed, patients won't have a financial incentive to become dealers.
"My days of being a criminal are over," Timothy Stallings of Macomb, told the Canton Daily Ledger, as he purchased marijuana for multiple sclerosis. He acknowledges using marijuana illegally for his symptoms in the past. "I want the stigma gone. It's medicine and it needs to be treated like medicine."