CHICAGO (AP) — Without explanation, Gov. Pat Quinn's administration has conceded it missed its end-of-the-year target for deciding which businesses will receive permits to begin the state's pilot program with medical marijuana. Some observers think the decision could come in a matter of days.
The lag will force cultivation center owners to break ground during the coldest winter months, and, ultimately, delay harvest of the first cannabis crop. Patients who've paid $100 for marijuana registry cards will have to wait, perhaps until summer or beyond, before they can legally use the drug. Some patients say they'll continue to use pot they've obtained on the black market.
"I hate to have to do anything illegal," said Marla Levi, 51, of Buffalo Grove, who uses marijuana for multiple sclerosis symptoms and has been approved as a patient in the new program. "I believe it's going to happen. In the meantime, I get it how I have to get it."
The agency leading the program offered no explanation for the setback.
"We are strongly committed to bringing relief to thousands of people across the state and ensuring Illinois is the national model for implementing medical cannabis," Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said in an email. "We are working hard to make sure this is done right."
Arnold said the state is "conducting a comprehensive review of every cultivation center and dispensary applicant to ensure that only the most qualified are approved for this important program. We will announce the recipients when this important review is finished."
A Skokie Democrat who sponsored the state's medical marijuana legislation predicted permits will be awarded before Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner's inauguration on Jan. 12.
"It would be very surprising, after all this work by the Quinn administration, to do it under the next governor who had indicated he was opposed to the program," state Rep. Lou Lang said. "I just don't see that happening."
Lang said he's been asking about the delay and is "satisfied the state agencies involved are working overtime" to evaluate applicants, conduct background checks and make decisions. "If I were a patient, I would be antsy. If I were someone waiting to get a license, I would be tense," Lang said.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture received 159 applications for cultivation centers and expects to award 21 licenses to growers, one in each Illinois State Police district. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation received 214 applications for dispensaries and expects to grant up to 60 permits.
Chicago attorney Brendan Shiller, who represents multiple companies vying for both cultivation center and dispensary permits, said he's not surprised or frustrated by the lag.
"A few weeks' delay is better than getting it wrong and setting back this policy a few years," Shiller said. Awarding permits to anyone ineligible under the law would be a disaster for the entire program because of negative publicity, he said.
Sara Gullickson of Dispensary Permits, a marijuana industry consulting company that's working with a number of Illinois applicants, said business owners want to know when the announcement will come.
"Is it going to be a month? Or is it going to be six months? These centers don't get up and running in a day. Open communication would be nice," Gullickson said