High Interest In Medical Pot

State officials say a series of community gatherings are helping to improve Illinois' medical marijuana pilot program.

Well over a hundred people packed inside a conference room at the downtown Peoria library on Monday, where the second of three town hall meetings regarding the pilot program was held. State project coordinator Bob Morgan says the gathering, like the one held last week in Collinsville, served as a great opportunity for officials to tweak the program, which has yet to be fully implemented nearly nine months after it rolled out.

Morgan says setup costs for potential businesses have been slightly lowered. Most notably, though, the patient application fee has been dropped from $150 to $100 a year. For veterans and some other qualifying groups, the annual fee is lowered even further to $50.

One of the biggest questions created by Illinois' new, and still somewhat murky, medical marijuana pilot program stems from the limited number of pot production, and dispensation, licenses the state will grant. The state is allowing only one cultivation center per Illinois State Police District and only 60 dispensaries total. With a high amount of competition and a low amount of opportunities, some potential pot business owners based in Illinois are wondering whether they'll be given an edge over out of state companies.

Morgan says companies that show they will create jobs in Illinois will get "bonus points" on their license applications, but, ultimately, the state will award licenses based on qualifications.

"We certainly are not excluding Illinois-base, or requiring Illinois-base. Certainly it's a balancing test for us," said Morgan.

Meanwhile, officials with the City of Peoria are still considering whether they want to be a part of the pilot program at all. Just last week, members of the City Council spent the better part of an hour debating the merits of medical marijuana, even though all they were asked to do was approve a zoning change that would specify where a pot production facility could go, if the state decides to put one in the River City. The ordinances at the center of the debate, which state a cultivation center could only go in areas already zoned as "industrial," were ultimately approved.

For his part, Mayor Jim Ardis is supportive of the pilot program. He says he's known many cancer patients who have greatly benefited from the pain relief that marijuana brings.

"It's amazing that, in this day and age, and with the money and time spent on research, companies have still not come up with a synthetic product that has the same effects as a natural plant," Ardis said.

He says there has already been some interest from potential dispensary and cultivation center owners.

"Why would you not want to be in the premier community in downstate Illinois for medicine and healthcare?" said Ardis.

That being said, while Peoria has adjusted its zoning laws in light of the new medical marijuana law, Ardis says there has been no open invitation for either dispensaries or cultivation center operators from the city. But, given the financial opportunities that accompany the new industry, that may change in the near future.

"We will be having the discussion soon about talking to some people about, if they are interested in this area, what is it that they can see as a partnership opportunity, to see what they can give back to the community," Ardis said.

There's still plenty of time for city officials to weigh their options when it comes to medical pot. The state will begin accepting applications from people wanting to open a cultivation center or a dispensary on September 8. The application window closes September 22. Potential patients, caregivers, and physicians can start sending in paperwork on September 2.

Just when companies can start growing, and selling, medical pot depends on how many applicants the state sees, and on how long it takes for various state departments to process the applications. It could be early 2015 before the four-year pilot program, which started back in January, is fully implemented.

The third and final town hall meeting hosted by state officials will be held at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago on Wednesday.


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