As Illinois Looks Ahead to Cannabis Legalization, Lawmakers & Lobbyists Play Politics
Legalization of recreational cannabis may soon be coming to Illinois, with sales expected to begin in 2020. The IL medical cannabis pilot program has been successfully expanding and has set the precedent for well-regulated medical cannabis nationwide. As the prospect of legalization appears on the horizon, policymakers in Springfield have an incredibly important goal ahead of them: create an evidence-based and practical plan for legalizing a long since prohibited drug that is in the best interest of the people of IL.
However, after a longstanding ban on growers making political contributions has been lifted, there has been an increasing concern among patients, consumers and community advocates on what reportedly seems like an attempt to stymie economic competition through the lobbying efforts of a political action committee, as reported by the Tribune.1 Consumers in online communities have frequently expressed disdain in what they report may be a dangerous proposal for an otherwise flourishing opportunity for the state. Here are some trending observations made from the conversations taking place with the community at large.
From Grassroots Movement to Gassed Up Politics
While the incredible progress in cannabis policy has been the result of a powerful grassroots movement, critics report it is becoming evident that this may no longer be the case. Demand is the key issue moving forward, and unfortunately, when politics is involved, patients end up paying the price. Prior to 2017, it was illegal for medical cannabis license holders or their affiliated political action committees to contribute to political candidates.
This law was overturned at the federal level in 2017, allowing the current license holders in Illinois to use their influence to sway legislation, arguing that they should be grandfathered into recreational licenses and that no further licenses should be granted to any parties. Additional points have been presented in support of giving current license holders a chance to fully activate their production levels before approving new licenses. However, evidence supporting the idea that the consumer demand of a fully operational, adult-use legal market, could be effectively met by the current number of licenses issued seem to be lacking.
An Effort to Corner the Free IL Cannabis Market
If history has taught anything from the many states (and Canada) that have fully legalized cannabis, it’s that demand can, and will rapidly outstrip supply, sending the entire program crashing down. Nevertheless, a state trade organization, the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois (MCAI), led by former state senator Pam Althoff, is advocating for restrictive legislation that could result in strictly limiting the IL market to its current players, barring any new licenses and thus, significantly increasing the probability of similar disastrous supply shortages taking place in Illinois.
New State Commissioned Study Shows IL Demand Will Exceed Licensed Growers’ Ability to Supply
In a new article published by the Chicago Tribune today, the results from an eagerly awaited study commissioned by state legislators are presented and it’s findings validate the concerns of many: demand will outstrip supply and the patients are the ones who will suffer the most.
The article states, “Legal recreational marijuana in Illinois could drive demand as high as 550,000 pounds a year, far more than the state’s licensed growers can supply, according to a new study commissioned by state legislators.”2
One can only hope our lawmakers and legislators will create new policy rooted in evidence, data and facts. This isn’t the only report, however, that is sounding alarm bells about MCAI’s restrictive proposal on new licenses.
They Who Control the Weed, Control the State
In such event, this can be problematic on multiple levels. Logically, one can presume that within a functioning, Illinois adult use market, the demand will be related to the number of customers and how much they buy in a given timeframe. As of 2019, a recent report issued by Illinois NORML (formally the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), details estimates for an adult use market in Illinois.
IL NORML Releases Extensive Report Confirming State Study & Warning of Supply Shortage
Using data from a 2014 White House report, Illinois demand is estimated at roughly 300,000 to 750,000 pounds. These numbers are based on self-reported usage statistics, potentially largely under-representing the actual market, along with an unaccounted five years of progress in educating the populace about the benefits and safety of cannabis. These numbers also do not account for tourism; with over 100 million tourists visiting the state each year. It can be expected that at least some tourists will visit dispensaries. The report notes that in Colorado, tourists accounted for roughly 9% of sales, and while it is clear the Illinois market will fluctuate from Colorado, correlating the data places Illinois demand at approximately 1.3 million pounds, annually.
Putting Politics Over Patient Concerns
The Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois is a state trade organization formed by some of the currently licensed growers in the state. When medical cannabis became legal in 2014, over 300 groups applied for licenses. Only 16 were ultimately issued. After the law change in 2017, the MCAI formed a PAC called the Illinois Relief Fund, where some growers immediately began donating, many contributing the maximum amount of $22,200.
It is important to note that not all license holders are members of the trade organization, or believe in restricting an already limited market. However, former state Senator Pam Althoff, the current executive director of MCAI, made the stance clear in the Chicago Tribune article, stating, “My organization believes they have the current capacity to meet the demand. Until we see substantive data that indicates differently, we support no new cultivation licenses.”1
IL NORML Report Clearly Reflects Need For More Licensed Growers in IL
The IL NORML report may arguably contain the substantive data needed for new considerations; where they’ve charted the increased scaling needed to more realistically meet the estimated market demand. Using even conservative estimates, the operation of every cultivating license would need to increase by 30 to 50 times or more. According to the report, a 30,000ft2 facility would need to become about 600,000ft2 to meet this demand, and it’s not likely that every facility can, or will want to expand their production. If demand does, in fact, outstrip supply, prices will be likely to skyrocket, and there could quickly be shortages as the whole state goes dry.
IL NORML Report: A Closer Look At The Findings
MPG = Marijuana Policy Group; Tables Compare IL & CO; Bar Graph represents forecasted demand based on existing MPP (Marijuana Policy Project) data and findings by MPG.
Despite Canada’s best efforts to supply the legal market, Canada began running out of cannabis after only 2 days of nationwide legalization.
Number of licensed dispensaries per thousand square miles in States with medical and/or legal cannabis programs. Despite its high population and expected demand, the state still trails sixth from the end.
The Issue is One of Medicine
Currently, Illinois has roughly 50,000 registered, medical marijuana patients. Average sales are roughly 15,000 pounds per year, and that is with around 60% of registered patients buying in any given month. Going from 30,000 regular customers to millions of customers is a massive increase. If the supply is indeed unable to meet the demand, we could suddenly have a medical crisis where patients won’t have access to their medicine, or they’ll be forced to pay exorbitant prices.
This is one of the greatest fears patients have, and could easily have the unintended effect of invigorating the illicit market, thus funneling tax revenue away from the state as people seek less desirable avenues for relief. Adding insult to injury, in other states, there are efforts aimed at removing consumers’ ability to grow their own medicine.
Those using cannabis for nausea from chemotherapy, TBI, MS, Fibromyalgia, etc. for example, would have compromised access to their medicine, and those with rare forms of childhood epilepsy requiring CBD for maintenance could be placed at a dangerous level of risk.3
The most vulnerable patients would likely be forced to go back to more cost-effective pharmaceuticals, regrettably reverting the progress they may have already made in reducing, or in some cases entirely eliminating their need for prescription medications. Due to current federal laws, state dispensaries must buy their supply only from licensed growers within the state, some of which make up the MCAI.
If you Grow, They Will Go: There is Plenty Opportunity For Everyone
Demand has not failed to outstrip supply in California, Colorado, Michigan, and Canada, with Canada burning through a 200,000-pound surplus in just six days.4,5 Patients feel it can happen in Illinois as well, prompting the conversation about legislative options and possible alternatives.
The medical cannabis movement has always been a patient-driven focus. It was inevitable that, once regulations began to ease and the possibility of legalization appeared, the “green rush” would begin to ensue nationwide. There are potential options available to enable the market to stabilize itself, without relying on what seems like a scarcity mentality, to limit production and control the progress of a market that has only recently begun to flourish.
Different States, Different Approaches, Same End Goal: To Benefit the People
Other states have implemented different approaches to the licensing dilemma. Some states give dispensaries the option to have their own growing operation, as they’ve already been licensed and vetted by the state. In some states, they offer home grow licenses for medically registered individuals where they can grow a limited number of plants for personal use, and if they desire, sell any excess.
What needs to be consistent, however, is the proper testing and management of all growing operations, ensuring that both patients and consuming adults have access to pure, uncontaminated products. Nevertheless, critics of the recent news believe that by providing such propositions to take place, the state could inadvertently e crush the potential for new licensees to enter, innovate, and benefit from the market opportunity, while at the same time ignoring the soon-to-be massive demand influx that is projected to be right around the corner.
Success Today Does Not Guarantee Success Tomorrow
Bumps aside, the medical program in Illinois has turned out to be successful thus far, in that there have been no outrageous cases of diversion, theft, or notable public events. While the program has regrettably struggled with the policy issues at hand, the program shows these issues are becoming more evident.
If allowed to continue unaddressed, patients, consumers, doctors, advocates, and others in support of the program fear that if the consequences stand to be true (as they have many times before as witnessed in other states and Canada that have implemented full cannabis legalization), the program could very well neglect the people it was originally intended to protect.
As an update to our post, here is a rebuttal report from IL-NORML on other competing reports that may claim to state otherwise.
What do YOU think? Have thoughts on the conversation? We want you to contribute to the dialogue, so chime in and share your feedback in the comments on our page. Be sure to also join the IL Medical Cannabis Community Facebook Group to ask questions and stay engaged in the discussion!
About the Author: Gaurav Dubey holds his Master’s in Biotechnology, and has publications in the field of stem cell research and transplant medicine. Combining his experience as a scientist with his passion for creative writing and medical cannabis, he actively contributes in the cannabis industry, including The Medical Cannabis Community, Green Flower Media, Midwest Compassion Care, and Bloom Medicinals.
- McCoppin, R. Medical marijuana growers are lobbying for licenses that also would allow them to control supply of recreational pot in Illinois. chicagotribune.com Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-marijuana-companies-lobbying-to-limit-recreational-licenses-20190214-story.html. (Accessed: 26th February 2019)
- Keilman, J. Demand for legal marijuana in Illinois would far exceed licensed growers’ ability to supply it, study shows. chicagotribune.com Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-illinois-legalized-marijuana-study-20190228-story.html. (Accessed: 1st March 2019)
- Supply challenges in cannabis industry affecting medical patients. Winnipeg (2018). Available at: https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/supply-challenges-in-cannabis-industry-affecting-medical-patients-1.4175718. (Accessed: 26th February 2019)
- California Might Run Out of Legal Cannabis by Summer | Leafly. Available at: https://www.leafly.com/news/politics/california-will-run-out-of-legal-marijuana-by-summer-legal-fix-in-works. (Accessed: 26th February 2019)
- Canada Nearly Runs Out of Weed After Marijuana Legalization | Fortune. Available at: https://fortune.com/2018/10/21/canada-runs-out-legal-weed/. (Accessed: 1st March 2019)