Illinois Medical Cannabis: The News Is Bad

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and the Department of Public Health gave some bad news yesterday for Illinois medical cannabis patients, announcing that the state will not be adding any of the eleven additional conditions approved by the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board. Governor Rauner also vetoed Senate Bill 33, which would have added PTSD by statute.

Illinois Medical Marijuana Pilot ProgramThe Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which legalized the possession and use of medical cannabis in Illinois, also created the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, a panel of 15 physicians and patient advocates that convene twice a year to consider petitions to add conditions “for which the use of cannabis has been shown to have a therapeutic or palliative effect.” The Board, by majority vote, can recommend to the Director of the Department of Public Health to add these conditions through administrative rule. The Act provides that the health department “shall approve or deny a petition within 180 days of its submission, and, upon approval, shall proceed to add that condition by rule[.]”

The Department of Public Health’s administrative rules further provide that “[u]pon review of the Advisory Board’s recommendations, the Director will render a final decision regarding the acceptance or denial of the proposed debilitating medical conditions or diseases.” Almost two weeks after blowing past the six month statutory deadline, the Rauner Administration entirely rejected the Board’s recommendations, rendering a 56-word final decision that the conditions would “remain unaltered.”

In a separate statement accompanying the veto of SB33, Governor said that:

The pilot program is moving forward, but remains in its early stage. Cultivation centers are just beginning to grow their crops, and the first dispensary was licensed at the end of August. No patients have yet been served, and, consequently, the State has not had the opportunity to evaluate the benefits and costs of the pilot program or determine areas for improvement or even whether to extend the program beyond its pilot period. It is therefore premature to expand the pilot program – before any patient has been served and before we have had the chance to evaluate it.

All of us here in Illinois with connections to its cannabis industry are beside ourselves. Patients, advocates, licensees, and even the Chair of the Advisory Board, are upset with the Governor’s decisions, which will preclude tens of thousands of potential patients from entering an already anemic patient pool. Many are struggling to understand his motivations, especially given his spurious reasoning.

The problem is that all government pilot programs are experimental in nature and necessarily involve tinkering with various policy choices. The Medical Cannabis Advisory Board was created and serves to facilitate exactly that. That board was created to put the consideration of additional medical conditions outside of the legislative process and place it into the hands of expert medical professionals, who can more neutrally and scientifically evaluate the merits of each petition. The Department of Public Health’s administrative rules clearly establish the criteria by which these conditions should be considered: “whether the use of cannabis has been shown to have a therapeutic or palliative effect.” These rules nowhere mention that adding medical conditions should depend on whether or how well the cannabis industry is currently serving the needs of other patients’ conditions. Nor do they contemplate factoring in whether or not to extend the entire pilot program.

Instead, Governor Rauner flat out ignored the recommendations of trained medical professionals who extensively reviewed scientific evidence supporting medical cannabis treatments. A 56-word final decision to deny all these conditions is suspiciously terse; the public (and especially the patients with any of the rejected conditions) are owed a more detailed explanation as to why our Department of Public Health and our Governor rejected the Advisory Board’s recommendations wholesale.

The Advisory Board meets next in October and will reconsider many of the conditions denied yesterday, although yesterday’s news casts doubt on how seriously the state will take its recommendations. There is some hope left as SB33 heads back to the General Assembly, which could override the Governor’s veto by a three-fifths vote in each chamber. Whether this likely happens is unclear since the bill narrowly failed to receive veto-proof majority votes in either chamber, mostly along partisan lines. The Senate has 15 days from the first date it meets next–October 6th–to take up the override vote.

In the meantime, things are not looking good today for patients or the industry here in Illinois.