By Robert McCoppin and Dan Moran
Bill Wilson can't stand the smell of marijuana. He said he's anti-drug and anti-alcohol, yet there he was Monday, buying medical cannabis on the first day it was authorized by Illinois law.
After years of taking anti-inflammatory drugs and prescription painkillers that messed up his stomach, the 52-year-old Chicagoan who has degenerative spinal disease said he hoped that marijuana would help him reduce his use of such medications. After seeing cannabis help his sister with multiple sclerosis, and trying it himself in Colorado, he said he's convinced of its benefits.
"This is going to be a godsend," he said, holding vials of pot that cost him $180. "I really believe that."
Wilson was among several patients who lined up Monday at EarthMed, a medical marijuana dispensary in Addison. It was one of six medical pot stores to open statewide, a fraction of the 60 planned sites and in effect a soft launch of a program that was more than two years in the making since lawmakers approved it in 2013. State regulators have authorized only about 3,300 patients -- a far cry from the 100,000-plus originally projected.
But industry officials remained optimistic that more patients will sign up now that the four-year pilot program has become a reality.
"We're thrilled to be giving this medicine to patients," said Gus Koukoutsakis, co-owner of EarthMed, which offered 11 strains of marijuana, with names such as Grape God Bud and Chemdawg, for about $20 a gram. The state allows patients to buy up to 21/2 ounces every two weeks, which some estimates put at about 10 cigarette-sized joints a day -- much more than what many patients said they needed.
To comply with local zoning laws and requirements to be at least 1,000 feet from schools and day care centers, many of the dispensaries are in industrial parks, which some patients felt was meant to keep them hidden.
Further lending a mood of secrecy to the proceedings, no customers are allowed inside the dispensaries unless they have been certified by a doctor as having one of about 40 specified debilitating medical conditions, such as cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis. Patients have to submit fingerprints to pass a criminal background check and must show a state-issued photo ID.
Some patients were turned away because they had not yet registered online with one dispensary, as required. Some said they didn't have time to register since receiving their IDs as recently as Friday or Saturday.
One of those who left empty-handed was Ryan Flannigan, of Palos Heights, who has spinal arthritis and muscular dystrophy and walks with a cane at age 24.
"It's depressing. ... I've been waiting two years for this moment," Flannigan said.
Some of those who made purchases had smoked marijuana previously from the black market, but said they were relieved it was now legal. Many others, some who came in on walkers or crutches, said they'd never or rarely used it before and were unsure how to proceed.
Each store has employees, known elsewhere as "bud tenders," who consult with patients on what symptoms they hope to relieve and how different strains might affect them. The two main types of cannabis are known generally for different effects. Sativa is said to be more euphoric and energetic, while indica is thought to be more relaxing and better as a pain reliever and sleep aid.
Different strains also vary key components, such as the amount of THC, the component that gets users high, and CBD, which is said to reduce seizures. For the first couple of weeks, the stores are expected to offer only the dried flower form of marijuana. In the future, growers say they will produce a wide variety of edibles, including chocolates, brownies and gummy bears, as well as oils, extracts, lotions and possibly patches.
Many of the patients said they hoped marijuana would allow them to reduce their use of painkillers and other prescription drugs and the side effects they produce. One recent study found that states permitting medical marijuana had a relative decrease in opiate addictions and overdose deaths compared to states that do not.
Other studies have shown marijuana is effective for treating neuropathic pain. However, an analysis this year of several other medical studies found that there was weak evidence for marijuana's effectiveness in treating many other conditions. In general, advocates and critics say more research is needed because it's been impeded by the federal classification of marijuana in the most dangerous category, along with heroin.
While medical marijuana has been allowed in 22 other states, some groups remain opposed to it, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Medical Association.
On Monday, though, patients were just happy to have the product in hand. At EarthMed, the first patient to legally purchase pot, Chris Favela, 19, paid $180 for about nine grams of marijuana to reduce spasms from multiple sclerosis.
"I think it's fantastic," Favela, of Itasca, said of the program. "It's going to help patients that are suffering. I take a lot of medication and if this reduces it ... I'm a fan."
Other dispensaries opened in suburban Mundelein and downstate Canton, Marion, Ottawa and Quincy. Another was expected to open Tuesday in North Aurora.
In Mundelein midday Monday, a crowd of more than 100 was waiting outside The Clinic Mundelein dispensary when Ben Kovler opened its doors and was greeted by applause as he welcomed the first set of clients.
"This is a historic day in the state of Illinois," said Kovler, CEO of Green Thumb Industries, the company behind The Clinic. "What we've gone through (to open) is nothing compared to what the patients have gone through."
A "Menu for Opening Day" distributed outside The Clinic featured indica and sativa strains with prices ranging from $35 for 1.75 grams to $110 for 7 grams of either product.
Second in line outside The Clinic was Edwin Schlesser, who drove north from Streamwood to buy medication that he said is preferable to the narcotics prescribed to him for a spinal condition.
"My doctor was actually proud of me for never taking the pain pills," said Schlesser, expressing worries about addiction.
"This is God's natural gift to us right here," he said, holding up a sealed vial of cannabis that he intended to use as soon as he got home. "It was a long process (to acquire it), but it's a great day."
State regulators worked through the weekend to finish setting up a computer database of patients and caregivers that dispensaries must use to track where patients buy their cannabis and how much. Additional dispensaries are expected to be authorized to open by the end of the year, with a total of 18 grow houses authorized to operate under the test program, scheduled to end in 2018.
The state program, which former Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law, was designed to be more stringent than other states that offer medical pot. But implementation was marked by repeated setbacks. When Quinn lost re-election to Bruce Rauner, the new administration delayed approving licenses for growers and sellers, fearing litigation over the process. Various lawsuits were filed over the issue, but none has won final rulings.
Robert McCoppin is a Chicago Tribune reporter; Dan Moran is a News-Sun reporter. Steve Lord of the Beacon-News contributed.
(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune