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If Honest Abe wanted to toke up today in the Land of Him, he'd better have a medical cannabis ID or a “Get Out of Jail Free Card.”

Smoking in public remains illegal in Illinois, with or without that medical cannabis card.

That may seem surprising in the state that is Sweet Home to Chicago, which recorded more than 57.6 million visitors in 2018. Many of those tourists may want to enhance their Illinois experience with some homegrown products. There isn't any backyard bounty to buy because home cultivation of cannabis remains a crime, as well.

Even though the Land of Lincoln passed one of the nation's first medical marijuana laws 41 years ago, it has yet to legalize adult-use cannabis.

There is hope, however. In November 2018 Illinois elected a Democratic governor who has vowed to legalize adult-use marijuana, and Democrats also control both branches of the General Assembly. There are plans to introduce a legalization and social justice bill before the session ends on May 31, 2019.

Illinois Law and Cannabis

In 1931, the General Assembly prohibited cannabis cultivation, sale and use, well before a national law was ever passed.

In 1978, the state passed the Medical Cannabis Control Act, but neither the state Department of Human Services nor the state police, which were charged to create regulations governing medical marijuana, ever offered any of those required regs. So weed continued to be against the law and left Illinoisans, in the words of native son John Prine, with only an “Illegal Smile.”

Fast-forward to 2013, when under Democratic Gov. Patrick Quinn, the General Assembly passed the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, becoming the 20th state to approve medical marijuana.

Illinois began qualifying patients for medical marijuana eligibility in September 2014 and by November were distributing medical marijuana. Bruce Rauner, a Republican who defeated Quinn, decriminalized minor weed possession in 2016, which means that violators caught with 10 grams or less are ticketed instead of facing criminal charges.

As of April 9, 2019, IDPH has approved 61,231 qualified patients for the Medical Cannabis Registry since taking applications in September 2014. Illinois has licensed 55 dispensaries and 21 cultivators, far fewer than many states with smaller populations that have legalized medical marijuana.

In March 2019, Illinois dispensaries sold $17.6 million in cannabis flower and $9.6 million in concentrates and infused products to 39,539 patients.

Illinois dispensaries have logged $304.5 million in medical cannabis sales from November 2015-March 31, 2019.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, got his start in politics in Illinois. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., honors his work to preserve the union during the Civil War. Photo by Girma Nigusse on Unsplash.

What is Legal

The Illinois Department of Public Health regulates the medical marijuana program for patients, caregivers and prescribing physicians, while the state's Department of Financial and Professional Regulations oversees the 55 licensed dispensaries. Its Department of Agriculture licenses and controls the 21 cultivation centers.

Patients and their appointed caregivers are the only designated groups who can legally buy cannabis from a licensed dispensary. They must live in Illinois and remain residents throughout their participation in the program. Once approved, they can purchase up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis in a two-week period.

Cultivators and dispensaries pay a 7% sales tax, while patients pay a 1% pharmaceutical tax. Patients with medical marijuana cards can buy only from a single dispensary only identified through their initial registration form, but can switch dispensaries for free by completing the Medical Cannabis Selection Form. The 55 licensed dispensaries can be found here.

Medical marijuana registry cards allow patients to purchase cannabis flower, edibles, tinctures, concentrates, drinks, capsules, and oils, but not consume them in public. They can transport cannabis inside secured containers that must be inaccessible to drivers or passengers. Neither drivers nor passengers may consume cannabis inside a vehicle.

Those applying for a medical cannabis card must follow these steps, which include receiving written certification from a physician; completing the program's application form and paying the one-year $100 application fee.

Patients can apply online. All patients, except for veterans receiving care through a Veterans Administration facility, must have a physician present written certification confirming that they have been diagnosed with one or more of 41 severely debilitating or life-threatening conditions.

Those qualifying conditions include cancer, HIV/AIDS and post-traumatic stress disorder. Qualifying conditions are here.

Caregivers helping approved medical marijuana patients must be state licensed to purchase weed on behalf of one patient only. They must be Illinois residents 21 and older, submit to background checks, and pay $25 annual fee for the registry card.

What isn't allowed

Illinois now permits the possession and consumption of medical marijuana for eligible patients only. However, recreational adult use remains illegal. Public consumption and private cultivation are against the law, as is vaping wherever state law prohibits smoking.  

While Illinois has made possession of 2.5 grams or less a civil misdemeanor punishable by a $200 fine, sales or trafficking of 2.5 to 10 grams of cannabis is punishable with a six-month imprisonment and a $1,500 civil fine. But sales of more than 5,000 grams (11 pounds) carries a maximum of 60 years in prison and up to $200,000 in criminal penalties. Delivering weed on school grounds increases prison time and fines.

Growing cannabis, even with a medical marijuana card, remains illegal.  Cultivation of fewer than five plants is considered a misdemeanor, but still can net violators six months' prison time and a $1,500 fine. The penalties for hashish are the same as for marijuana. Possession of paraphernalia with more than 10 grams of weed is a misdemeanor and $2,500 fine, while selling paraphernalia, especially to a minor or pregnant woman, can bring prison sentences of six to 14 years and $25,000 fines.

Even stiffer penalties apply to bringing in 2,500 grams (5.5 pounds) or more of marijuana into Illinois, fetching “mandatory minimum sentences of twice the minimum sentence for the sale or manufacture of the same weight of marijuana.”


Featured Image: Chicago's Grant Park and Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate are star attractions in Chicago. Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

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