By Robert McCoppin

In response to a chorus of calls for cheaper access to medical marijuana, state regulators have proposed lowering the annual registration cost for patients to $100 from $150.

The proposed new rules would also eliminate an earlier provision banning medical marijuana patients from owning firearms.

But fees for business owners would remain intentionally high — and in one case would double — to ensure that entrepreneurs have enough capital to operate successfully.

The rules will govern how Illinois' new medical marijuana law will be implemented. The law will allow patients who qualify to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of pot every two weeks.

Earlier this year, the state departments of Agriculture, Public Health and Financial and Professional Regulation proposed 226 pages of rules. They cover everything from requiring 24-hour video surveillance of marijuana businesses to banning drive-through and delivery service.

Numerous prospective business operators have criticized the high fees required to open a grow house or dispensary. Regulators didn't lower any of those fees but raised the requirement for liquid assets to open a grow center to $500,000 from $250,000.

"We want to make sure they have a viable operation," health department spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said. "We want to make sure patients have an adequate supply of quality product."

Regulators also dropped a proposal to make patients surrender their firearms. However, regardless of state laws, federal law still prohibits users of marijuana from possessing a handgun, said Thomas Ahern, special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The bureau issued a letter in 2011 warning gun dealers that it's illegal to sell a firearm to a marijuana user, though Ahern could not recall a case of a dealer being charged with such a crime.

State regulators also proposed cutting the registration fee for patient caregivers from $150 to $25, and for Social Security recipients and veterans to $50.

Another proposal would enlarge the size of an advisory panel from nine to 15 members, who will review requests to add to the list of medical conditions that could qualify someone to use medicinal pot. The board would include nine health care practitioners; three patients, including one veteran; two nurses or nurse practitioners; and one caregiver or patient advocate.

The proposed regulations will go to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which will seek public input before making any final changes. State officials hope to begin taking applications for businesses and patients in the fall, and seek to get the first crop from 21 cultivation centers into 60 dispensaries by next year.

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