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Under strict new state law, it won’t be easy to get medical marijuana

Jim Champiright who is an Army veteran who has suffered from progressive form multiple sclerosis for 25 years speaks about

Jim Champion, right, who is an Army veteran who has suffered from a progressive form of multiple sclerosis for 25 years speaks about the importance of the medical marijuana bill, with his wife, Sandy, before Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, left, signs the bill at the University of Chicago Center for Care and Discovery in Chicago, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. The measure outlines a four-year pilot program that requires patients and caregivers to undergo background checks and sets provisions for state-regulated dispensaries. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

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Updated: September 3, 2013 7:48AM

In becoming the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana, Illinois is trying not to repeat the mistakes of others.

That means the law says no pot for people with a general complaint of pain, a loophole in California, Arizona and Colorado. The bill signed Thursday by Gov. Pat Quinn specifies 35 conditions that would make a person eligible for cannabis therapy.

It also means Illinois won’t allow qualified recipients to grow their own weed. The law places numerical and geographic limits on where marijuana can be cultivated and purchased.

And the measure tries to combat the specter of “pot doctors,” physicians whose only business is to certify people for the drug. House Bill 1, which Quinn said “has the nation’s strictest safeguards to prevent abuse,” requires that the doctor certifying a patient for medical marijuana must be the same one treating the underlying malady.

“The big distinction between the states that have problems with medical marijuana and those that do not is the strength of their regulations. Illinois is trying to do it right,” said Chris Lindsey, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that helps draft legislation.

Quinn, who signed the measure at a University of Chicago clinic, portrayed it as a compassionate answer for people who are chronically ill. Studies have shown that cannabis helps relieve pain and other symptoms of certain illnesses. Critics argue the same benefits are available from legal medications.

But for now, nothing much changes. The law doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1. The first legal hit on a joint probably won’t come until later next year, experts said.

Administrative rules to implement the law can’t be proposed until it takes effect, and then there’s at least a 90-day period for public review and comment before approval by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative agency.

Three other state departments play a part in this. Coordination could cause delay.

There’s also the troublesome issue of who gets certified to grow or sell the pot. It could be an insider’s dream, although the legislation bans political contributions from anybody in those businesses.

Here are answers to some questions about the bill:

Q. Who qualifies for the marijuana?

A. People with documentable conditions such as cancer, muscular dystrophy and lupus. Regardless of health, people can’t get it if they are minors, have felony drug convictions or work in certain occupations, such as police officer or school bus driver.

Q. How much can they get?

A. Up to 2.5 ounces for any 14-day period, unless a doctor certifies the need for more and the state Department of Public Health agrees. Recipients will get an ID card that state officials promise will be impossible to fake.

Q. Where do they get it?

A. At any of 60 dispensaries that are supposed to be spread around the state. Growing will be done at 22 cultivation centers, one in each State Police district.

Q. Why can’t you use a pharmacy?

A. Because they can’t dispense what’s illegal under federal law. And insurance doesn’t pay for medical marijuana.

Q. Will my neighborhood get a scourge of pot clinics?

A. Aside from requiring dispersed selling points, the law also specifies that they must abide by local zoning laws and can’t be in a residential area or near schools. It leaves open the issue of whether towns could write their own zoning rules to keep them out.

Q. What about people who smoke the stuff and drive?

A. They could be prosecuted for impaired driving under the same rules that apply to other medications. Driving records would show that they are certified to use marijuana.

Q. How do I get a contract to grow or sell pot?

A. The Department of Agriculture will approve and regulate the 22 cultivation centers. The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation will do the same for the 60 dispensaries. Heavy regulation is promised, including background checks for company officers and agents, 24-hour security at the cultivation centers and inventory control.

Q. What’s in this financially for the state?

A. The growers will pay a 7 percent tax that’s designed to defray enforcement costs. Buyers will pay a 1 percent tax, the same as for pharmaceuticals.

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