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What Colorado can teach Illinois about Medical Marijuana

In January, medical marijuana is coming to Illinois with the most tightly regulated plan in the nation.

The state is welcoming medical marijuana with great limitations, only 38 illnesses qualify as reasons to get it.

In Colorado, medical marijuana has been legal for years. And because Illinois is jumping into the industry for the first time, there is a lot to learn from those that have gone before us.

WGN’s Julie Unruh traveled to Colorado to see how their laws are influencing what happens here.

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In January, medical marijuana is coming to Illinois

How will it be regulated? Who is going to police it?  What do new legal users need to know or be concerned about from seed to sale?

In Colorado, medical marijuana has been legal for years.  And because Illinois is jumping into the industry for the first time, there is a lot to learn from those that have gone before us.  Colorado was a trailblazer on the medical marijuana front. It is worth a comparison as we soon become a flower-friendly state  too.


Illinois green lighted the sale and consumption of medical marijuana over the Summer.   If you have a registration card you can buy up to 2.5 ounces of buds or other products every two weeks. But who is in charge of saying who can buy, sell, grow or manufacture the herb?  In Boulder, Colorado, the district attorney Stan Garnett says determining that has not been an easy road.

Initially minor possession of marijuana was considered breaking the law. It is now the D.A.’s lowest priority. What Garnett does enforce is abusers of medical marijuana. A Colorado registry card does not get an impaired driver off the hook. It’s a judgment call, but officers rely on field sobriety tests, walking the line, for example. Blood tests just weren’t realistic, he claims.

Garnett says it’s an imperfect process and the national cannabis industry association.

Right now, testing of the products for safety and potency has not been mandatory in Colorado for more than 10 years. Illinois will require it, according to House Bill 1.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes Colorado made legalizing medical marijuana in 2000, and several years went by with no regulation and no real effort to control it.”

10 years, in fact.  So “clinics” as many of them are called, surfaced everywhere. No one was in place to stop it. Some appear more clinical, others resemble head shops playing to the underground culture that has been in Colorado for so long.

Enter Ron Kammerzell from Colorado’s Dept of Revenue. His agency was tapped to oversee growers and sellers and their licensing 10 years too late. Regulation costs money and Colorado didn’t have much to spend.

Here in Illinois

  • The Dept of Public Health will screen potential patient applications.
  • Illinois police will conduct all fingerprinting and background checks.
  • The Dept of Agriculture will oversee safety and potency of the products.
  • And the Dept of Financial and Professional Regulation will deal with licensing for the businesses in Illinois.


They will do it from the start. They will all be tied into one computer network program. In Illinois,  the sponsor of the bill made an effort to keep sellers from also growing medical marijuana. Colorado required business owners to do both.

Local law enforcement will learn to ask for registry cards when they suspect marijuana is being used. The state’s attorneys across Illinois will prosecute if need be. And the feds have nothing to do with the process at all. They simply pinch business owners by not allowing them to bank anywhere, forcing the legalization of marijuana to be an all cash business and leaving no paper trail for local law enforcement to follow the money if things go wrong.

For law enforcement in Colorado, these are challenges that have forced them to re-think how they approach the medical marijuana masses.


The industry is also asking you to think of it differently. The owners of retail shops,  for example, want them called “clinics.” The people buying are not customers, they are “patients.” And gone are the slang terms like pot and weed. Folks in the medical marijuana business want the plant referred to as “medicine,” “buds” or “flowers”—not much more.






In January, medical marijuana is coming to Illinois with the most tightly regulated plan in the nation.

But with two months to go, details are lacking about how the sick will get it, where they will find it and how it could change the landscape.

The state is welcoming medical marijuana with great limitations, only 38 illnesses qualify as reasons to get it.

Just how rigid are our rules will be is still being ironed out legislatively.

And because of that, it could be summer, maybe later, before anyone in this state will get their first puff, taste or dose of medical marijuana.

In Colorado, marijuana goes fully “recreational” in January, making it as easy to buy as a bottle of booze if you’re 21 years of age.

WGN’s Julie Unruh traveled to Colorado how that state influenced what Illinois plans to do.

Kayvan Khalatbari owns Denver Relief, a dispensary in downtown Denver. He is a pioneer in the bud business. He not only sells medical marijuana, he grows it too, at a warehouse, a few miles away. He’s required to sell at least 70% of his grow under Colorado law.

Set up like bank tellers, the bud-tenders are happy to show a patient all sorts of medicine, much of which doesn`t resemble traditional medicine at all.

Medical marijuana comes in many forms: chocolates, gummies, suckers, seeds and nuts, even butter and olive oil and don`t forget the fruity beverages, all infused with cannabis.

For the old school smokers, you can buy a pre-roll or joint, or just buy a bag of buds.

You cannot smoke in the shop, you must buy it and take it home. That’s the law in Colorado and it will be the law in Illinois, too.

2 oz of cannabis products will cost a patient, with no help from insurance, $800-900 dollars. It should last 1-2 weeks.

Between 500 and 600 centers have popped up all over Colorado in recent years. There are also 800 plus cultivation centers in Colorado where the plants are grown.

By comparison, Illinois legislators have approved only 60 dispensaries and 22 cultivation center spread out over the 22 state police districts.

Representative Lou Lang is the sponsor of House Bill 1 in Illinois. He is a champion in the medical marijuana community for getting the bill signed this summer.

“It was important to pass the bill even with a few flaws in it because we have to get the ball rolling to help sick people feel better,” he said.

The few flaws, in Lang`s eyes:

  • Children in Illinois cannot get medical marijuana even with a doctors’  recommendation
  • A densely populated Cook County is allowed only one cultivation center to serve the entire area
  • How do you know when someone is legally impaired? Lang says you don’t and it`s a problem.

As imperfect as it may be, law makers have settled on a field sobriety test. It`s up to the officer who pulled you over to decide if a sobriety test is warranted. Just like in Colorado.

Illinois is greatly restricting how much “medicine” a patient can buy, no matter what form they purchase the plant – only 2.5 oz every two weeks. Legally, Colorado allows 2 oz per transaction- that can be multiple times in one day.

Illinois is requiring testing of these products for potency levels and safety. Colorado does not. And Illinois is requiring all systems be tied into one computer database including sellers, growers and government agencies with oversight. Colorado has no such program, using instead a lot of self-regulation.

Illinois will be a 4-year pilot program only.  But advocates hope it will be extended with fewer limitation in 2018.

While the plan is to make the “medicine” “recreational” in places like Colorado, that is not necessarily the endgame in Illinois.  At least not right now.