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Joseph Wright, Cannabis King

The state’s medical marijuana czar explains the hurdles still facing prescription pot as it goes on sale in Illinois for the first time.

Joseph Wright, director of the Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program
Wright, 31, director of the Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program   Photo: Lisa Predko; Assistant: Jacqueline Ayala Photography Intern: Bailey LeCat; Retouching: Samantha Hylla

Only 3,300 patients have been approved for the program, which is not even close to what the state expected. Why so few? 

The largest projection I’ve seen for the number of patients who could be approved is several hundred thousand, so we are aware that there is a lot of room for growth. Lack of awareness and [doctors’ and patients’ unfamiliarity with the program] are reasonable explanations. In other states, there’s a natural progression in patient count. It starts out low, but as the program develops, it grows. 

Are you doing anything to boost it? 

We plan to do more one-to-one personal outreach to let people know how the program works, that it follows strict rules, what conditions qualify, and how to apply. 

Are there plans to loosen any of the program’s restrictions? 

Making the application easier to submit and more accessible would lessen some of the burden. People feel portions of the background checks are too onerous, but they are written into the act and we have to follow that as law.

If my condition hasn’t been approved, what can I do to change that? 

Patients can petition the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, which then recommends conditions to the state’s director of public health. If there is scientific evidence to support the claim, that’s beneficial. Users can also reach out to legislators and get involved in general awareness campaigns. Advocacy groups can marshal a lot of voices all at once.

Medical marijuana is not legal at the federal level. How might that be an issue? 

Cannabis can help children with epilepsy. But you’re ultimately giving a Schedule 1 federally banned narcotic to a minor. The state is OK with that, but will the Department of Justice be OK? So far, it hasn’t been a problem in other states, but it’s relatively new territory. 

Have you ever smoked pot? 

I don’t have an answer for that. 

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